Five VCA Animal Hospitals were in the path of Ian, a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 mph, when it made landfall in southwest Florida on Wednesday, September 28, 2022.

"By the previous Monday evening, I knew the hospitals in Sanibel, Cape Coral and Fort Myers would be directly hit," says Lisa Gillespie, the VCA regional operations director for south Florida.

The hospitals closed the next day. In Cape Coral, pets boarding at VCA Baywood were moved to VCA Chiquita, a two-story concrete building with a metal roof and impact-resistant windows. Luckily, none of the people or pets inside VCA Chiquita were injured.

The Category 4 hurricane winds weren't the only cause of devastation in the area. A storm surge caused by rising ocean waters rose to over 13 feet in some places, resulting in massive flooding.

VCA Sanibel, on Sanibel Island, received the most damage of the five VCA hospitals and is currently in the process of moving to a new location. In the meantime, staff members have temporarily relocated to VCA Coral in Fort Myers.

Working Together After the Hurricane

Thankfully, no people or pets were hurt. However, getting back to caring for pets was going to require all hands on deck, and VCA Associates stepped up in a major way.

“For a few days, the VCA Chiquita staff volunteered to help with the hospital debris clean-up,” says the hospital’s manager, Jessica Merritt. “There were giant chunks of metal roofing all around the hospital and trees were everywhere. It was a mess, but everybody pitched in. Our medical director was out there with a handsaw and ladder, cutting the tree limbs.”

At VCA Coral, the roof of the building housing its boarding and grooming facilities collapsed. Fortunately, no pets were in that area of the building at the time.

“On the following Monday, the whole staff met here and cleaned up around the hospital as best we could,” recalls hospital manager Kimm Pontiff. “It was a great team-building experience because we all came together and helped each other. It brought us closer together.”

One of the biggest challenges was the lack of power, which affected the ability of the hospitals to communicate with each other. 

“We had a group text including doctors and staff, and we’d let each other know we were safe and what we needed,” Lisa says. “When a staff member couldn’t be located after the hurricane, we worked together via that group text to determine who lived the closest to her and could check in on her. We did a lot of that. I think I had tennis elbows from all the texting!”

VCA’s IT team was especially helpful in resolving logistical issues, Lisa says. For example, the team connected the hospitals’ servers so all hospitals could access patients’ medical records. Within a few days, the team also replaced the damaged phone system at VCA Baywood with a new one.

And within just 10 days after the storm, four of the five damaged hospitals were able to reopen. “VCA Chiquita had no ceiling or roof, but clients and people who weren’t our clients were still coming in,” Lisa says. “They were thankful that ours were the only animal hospitals in the area to be up and running.”

Pets with issues due to the hurricane, such as cut feet or respiratory problems, were also being brought to VCA Coral. “As the week went on, some pets that had been left alone for days because people couldn’t reach their houses were brought in to make sure they were okay,” Kimm says. “A couple of pets that were lost on Sanibel Island and then found later were brought in for exams. They were skinny but okay.” Fortunately, there were no patient deaths related to the storm, Kimm notes.

Hospital teams help pet owners—and each other

“One of the biggest things that we strive for is to make these ‘sister’ hospitals,” Lisa says. “So if a client has an emergency that a hospital isn’t able to treat, the hospital will send them to a sister hospital so the client has continuity of VCA care instead of having to go to an emergency hospital. We also worked as a unit when supplies came in.”

Lisa adds that it was very fortunate that VCA’s Kimberly West, vice president, corporate affairs and Gina Lindell, vice president and general counsel, were able to help ship those much-needed supplies—including over 1,000 gallons of water, non-perishable food items and toiletries—for 110 Associates.  “The supplies were delivered to three hospitals so Associates could go to whichever hospital was closer to them.”

“Our staff lounge was full for over a month,” Kimm recalls. “Grocery stores were running out of things, so we could just come here and get what we needed. That was so helpful.”

One of the best things that happened after the hurricane was Kimberly offering to be the single point of contact, Lisa says. “’Any issues, anything that you need, filter it through me,’ she told me, and she would then communicate it to all the departments. This support was tremendous.” Although you may think you’re standing alone on an island while recovering from a storm like this, you're not because you’re part of VCA, Lisa notes. “After a devastating disaster like this, everybody joins together but then it can slowly dissipate, and you're left alone on your island again,” she adds. “But with VCA, we continue acknowledging each other and working in unison. The support we had from VCA on a human level was heartwarming.”

As Lisa and hospital staff were unloading some of the supplies four days after the hurricane, an older man approached them and asked if he could pay them to take his cat. He, his wife and their cat had been living in their car since the storm hit. 

“I said, ‘Put your money away—it's no good here,’” Lisa recalls. “I told him, ‘Come in, let's get you and your wife some water and food. We'll get your cat situated and take care of him.’” 

There were similar situations at all the hospitals, Lisa says. “I told the hospital managers, ‘Listen, you're going to have people coming in with pets that need care, and you are empowered to do the right thing.’”

Better Together Fund

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, many VCA team members were coping with a challenging double-whammy: dealing with their wrecked or destroyed homes while at the same time caring for the pets in their damaged hospitals.

Kimm says she has lived through many Florida hurricanes where authorities warned of storm surges that never actually materialized. “It was like the boy who cried wolf,” she explains. However, this was not the case with Hurricane Ian. “I had over seven feet of water in the downstairs of my house,” Kimm says. 

Jessica’s home was also damaged. “My house is a bit inland, so we typically don’t have to worry about flooding,” she says. Unfortunately, her house was filled with about 4 feet of water. “I realized much of my stuff was gone, but I still had my house.”

The hurricane destroyed the homes of three other hospital managers. “What's amazing is that a lot of the team members lost things, but there was no loss of human life among us,” Lisa says. 

Thanks to the Better Together Fund, which provides emergency funds for VCA Associates, Lisa said money was deposited into applicants’ bank accounts within days of the storm. “It gave them money for food, clothes, and temporary housing,” she notes.

Rebuilding and Healing

Although the process of restoring hospitals has been slow due to contractors being backlogged, some repairs have been made to the damaged VCA hospitals, including a new roof for VCA Chiquita. In the meantime, Associates continue to lean on each other and work together to ensure pets get the care they need.

A counselor visited VCA Coral and talked to the staff about recovery and feelings of anxiety. Although the situation and recovery have been very difficult, Kimm says, “We're getting there. We've had incredible support and we've had each other.”

When an emergency such as a hurricane strikes, be confident that high-quality care is close to home. Click here to locate the closest VCA 24/7 emergency hospital near you.