Compassion in the face of destruction

By Veronica Daehn

Dr. Timothy Hammond knows a bit about luck.

Because if the tornado that swept through Tuscaloosa, Ala., and other areas of the south on April 27 had been even a block closer, Hammond’s Tuscaloosa veterinary clinic would be gone.

"We would have been a pile of rubble," he said.

Instead, Hammond’s Alberta Veterinary Clinic suffered roof damage from fallen trees and loss of power and water. It was a small casualty compared to the havoc the deadly tornado wreaked on the rest of the city and the region.

An estimated 41 people from Tuscaloosa alone are dead. Thousands are homeless.

"It’s amazing to me we don’t have 1,000 people dead," Hammond said. "When you drive through this stuff every day… it just turns my stomach. It ripped the guts out of this town. It will be years rebuilding this mess."

"I can’t say enough about the veterinary community that’s stepped up and offered their services."

- JoEllen Cimmino, Noahs Wish

Because his clinic had no electricity or running water for nearly a week, Hammond was forced to close. That meant no income, which hurts a small practice.

"Seven days of no revenue is a big deal," he said, even though he has insurance and vendors and others have been gracious in their leniency.

When the clinic reopened Monday, piles of brush and downed power lines still littered the parking lot. Hammond didn’t even have a modern way to accept credit card payments. He planned to tape a sign to the front door that said "Cash or checks only." He hoped his clients would understand – if he even had clients.

"The whole town is covered up with homeless animals now," Hammond said. "A lot of animals are lost and winding up in shelters. We get a bunch of calls every day."

Hammond set up a new landline at his home, which was undamaged, so he could conduct some business from there while his clinic was closed. Many people called looking for pets’ owners or medical information.

Of course, Hammond wasn’t the only veterinarian affected by the tornadoes.

Out of 15 vet clinics in Tuscaloosa, at least four were closed for a time, Hammond said.

Nearby, in Northport, Ala., Tidmore Veterinary Hospital escaped any damage.

"Fortunately, we didn’t lose anything," said Dr. Scott White, a veterinarian at Tidmore.

Power was out for a day, but the animal hospital reopened the day after. Not that they were busy.

"People were just trying to survive," White said. "Everything was just gone. You go look at the town and there’s just nothing there.

"It was pretty amazing. In no time, you went from having a home to everything you have except the clothes on your back is gone."

The decimation of the town and so many people’s lives is why White and many other veterinarians in the affected region are doing what they can to help.

Aside from treating wounded animals and volunteering at makeshift animal shelters, many vet clinics are boarding displaced pets for free.

Tidmore has taken in up to 30 animals, White said. The pets’ owners have picked up some of them, others have been placed in foster care and others will be at the vet clinic for a while.

"People are displaced and have no other option," White said. "They don’t want to give up their pets."

The Tidmore hospital is even boarding some animals that belong to police officers and Alabama State Troopers, White said. They aren’t home to care for their pets because they’re helping Tuscaloosa dig out from the storm.

Staff members at many veterinary clinics are helping on their off hours, too.

Angela Moore, a certified veterinary technician at Conway Animal Clinic in Conway, Ark., near Little Rock, spent her day off recently volunteering with Noah’s Wish. The national animal rescue group is in Conway treating animals displaced by the storm.

At its busiest point, the group had 115 dogs, 35 horses, a kitten, a cat, and a burro, said JoEllen Cimmino, a veterinary technician for Noah’s Wish, an organization that shelters and rescues animals in disasters. Officials set up a makeshift animal shelter at an indoor arena on the rodeo grounds.

Moore thought she was going to help walk dogs, but once officials learned she was a technician, she said they put her veterinary skills to work. She did walk dogs, but she also administered medication, among other chores.

She wanted to help more, but it was difficult to get there, she said. Some roads were closed and it was difficult to work or travel after dark because there was no power. Plus, it wasn’t a place she wanted her 5-year-old daughter spending any time.

The local veterinarians have been a huge help, said Cimmino of Noah’s Wish.

"I can’t say enough about the veterinary community that’s stepped up and offered their services," she said.

No one plans to stop anytime soon either, said White, of Tidmore Veterinary Hospital. It’s just the right thing to do. Donations of pet food and other supplies have been generous. And while the veterinary clinics could use that food to compensate them for boarding the tornado victims, White said he and most other veterinarians won’t. Instead they are urging groups to give the donated food to the people who lost their homes but want to keep their pets.

"Let’s get it to them," White said. "We’ll be fine. We’ll be okay, but let’s get it to the people who need it. My business is safe."