Andy Bass took the RedRover Responders volunteer training 21 years ago. His first deployment with RedRover (then UAN) was 8 years later for Hurricane Charley in Bartow, FL. Here, he shares an article he wrote about his experience in 2004, followed by his reflections today.

As I head up the turnpike from Fort Lauderdale to central Florida, a drive I have made many times as a dog rescuer, three thoughts cross my mind.

First… I trained to be an EARS volunteer in 1996, shortly after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida.

Second… Since my training, I have not been activated for even one disaster.

Third… Am I out of my mind? Can I really make a difference in the midst of all this devastation?

As always, things were busy at work, at home and in the “regular” rescue work I do for Coastal Poodle Rescue. There were many reasons not to go to Bartow, but only one reason to go: The animals – and their families – needed help. So off I rolled into the Florida night. I had no idea what would be awaiting me on the other end.

After finding my way to the shelter location, I was directed to a large barn, which was to be our home for the next month. I introduced myself to the first “red shirts” I saw. They seemed awfully glad to see me, informed me of the dog escaping situation, and immediately put me to work repairing cages. Three hours had passed and another dozen or so dogs arrived before I finally got a chance to move in and unpack the donated supplies I had brought.

Modifying cages designed to hold larger (and slower moving) farm animals to contain exuberant dogs, proved to be a constant challenge. Two young pit bull terriers in particular took great joy in showing me every escape route possible. I would add a panel of wire mesh to the top of the cage, and as I walked away confident that escape was impossible, I would see a fellow volunteer looking past me and laughing. When I looked over my shoulder, there would be the Bully standing on top of the cage smiling from ear to ear, tail in full wag. As I approached him, he would give me a big kiss, then climb back triumphantly through the hole in the cage side. This exercise would be repeated for the next week. But in the end, we had close to 100 escape-proof cages.

Another challenge was to cool the building. As wonderful as it was to have a covered and secure building for a shelter, the Florida sun heated the roof to a point that the indoor temperature hovered near 100 degrees. At the end of my first five-day stint, I pleaded for large warehouse fans, air handlers and lots of plastic sheeting. I promised to return as soon as I could.

Two days at work seemed like an eternity, as all my thoughts were of Bartow and how I could make things better. Upon my return, I delightedly found that my wish list had been delivered. Within three hours, we had divided off the barn and brought down the temperature to a much more comfortable 85 degrees. After this, two communal dog play yards went up quickly, and the animal total now exceeded 200.

It is impossible not to fall in love or start to pick favorites in a population like this, and I was no different. In addition to the pit bulls… who acted more like students at a clown college than the vicious breed they are made out to be… there was Red Rocks, a wolf hybrid, who insisted on being the first one out (or else!)… and Manny, Mo & Jack, three preemie kittens who required hand feeding every four hours and to whom I quickly became “mom.” But the one who stole my heart was little Punkin.

This cream-colored Poodle/Maltese mix arrived with the first influx of animals that were likely airborne during the storm – most had broken bones to prove it. Punkin’s left eye had been punctured, leaving her blind. She was immediately treated and put on a floor cage in the cattery where it was a little calmer. But Punky showed quickly enough that she did not like being caged. I began bringing her out of the cage for some “lap time” and before long, she was sharing my cot at night. When the time came, Punky had not been claimed so I agreed to foster her. She now has her own faux fur carry bag for trips to the mall!

Seven weeks and three hurricanes later, three thoughts cross my mind.

First… The service offered by EARS [now RedRover Responders] to disaster victims is invaluable and desperately needed, and I am proud to be a volunteer.

Second… This experience is very much like running a special event. The only difference is a special event takes weeks to prepare and runs for three days, but with a shelter, you have days to prepare and run the event for many weeks.

Third… Am I out of my mind? Have I really made a difference in the midst of all this devastation?

Well, there is at least one little blind dog that thinks I made a difference. And right now she wants to go outside! So I’ll repack my travel bag and be ready to do it again.

Now, 21 years after I first trained [with RedRover Responders], and 13 years since the [Hurricane Charley] Bartow Deployment, I have been privileged to work with HSUS, ASPCA, PetSmart Charities, American Humane Assn. and the Florida State Animal Response Coalition. I am still working with some of the best Earth Angels anywhere!

And as I say in the training classes to the future responses, “The relationships you will create during deployment will last a lifetime.” My team leader at Bartow, Raquel Aluisy, came to my aid last year when I needed a place to stay after losing my lady,  Bobbie to cancer, and subsequently our home.

Learn more about becoming a RedRover Responders volunteer