The US has experienced two major hurricanes over the past two weeks, and like many people I have been following the news on these events closely. The last statistics on fatalities that I found report that seventy-one people died in hurricane Harvey and eighty-one in Irma. More than half of the Irma fatalities occurred in the Caribbean. Death tolls from these storms are expected to continue to rise.
As devastating as these hurricanes were, I couldn’t help but compare the loss of life to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, where over 1,800 people died. One of the reasons that many people in Katrina’s path refused to evacuate was that they did not want to abandon their pets. Storm shelters were not allowing pets and buses were refusing to transport people accompanied by animals. This time around shelters were prepared to accept people accompanied by animals and animal shelters were also poised to help evacuees who could not leave with their pets.
So dogs and cats, as well as people, fared better in these major hurricanes than in previous ones. Many people are asking, what about wildlife in the regions where hurricanes made landfall?
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the south Texas coast, was hit hard by Harvey and is closed until further notice. Major damage occurred at the visitor information center, and it may turn out to be a total loss. Public viewing platforms also suffered damage. A full assessment of damage has not occurred yet due to unsafe conditions for grounds crews. A problem with flooding in this area is almost inevitable petroleum and other chemical contamination as well as debris that could potentially harm wildlife. Refuge spokespersons report that major beach erosion occurred but that the saltwater marshes, major migratory bird habitats, suffered no obvious damage. The good news is that whooping crane migration to this area does not begin until next month. About half of the critically endangered whooping cranes winter at the Refuge.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in southwest Florida also suffered major damage to buildings and boardwalks. The Sanctuary is closed and there is no word yet on when it will be reopened. Again, an assessment of damage to the Sanctuary will not be completed for some time for reasons of safety, in this case the major hazard being fallen trees and unsafe structures. On Big Pine Key, deer have been spotted since Irma tore through. It is unknown what effect the hurricane had on the population of the rare Key deer species. On Key West, Hemingway’s famous six-toed cats evidently survived the storm just fine.
Birds and animals have a number of survival mechanisms for dealing with catastrophic hurricanes, which is not to say that they all necessarily survive. Many birds and small animals retreat into tree cavities, which provide wonderful shelter provided that the tree does not topple or floodwaters do not reach the cavity. Migratory birds are aware of tropical storms across great distances and will adjust their migratory schedules to avoid major storms. Some migratory birds fly into storms and survive, and they may even hang out in the “eye” until the storm breaks up. In both of these scenarios, surviving birds may be pushed very far out of their natural habitats. A bigger problem for bird survival than immediate deaths from wind and rain is the loss of habitat. Bird habitat is vanishing at an alarming rate due to human development, pollution, and global warming, so habitat loss from hurricanes can have a big impact.
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