Search Dog Teams Deployed to Hurricane Areas

The third most intense hurricane on record, Hurricane Rita, has Search Dog Foundation’s canine-firefighter groups going back out again after being deployed to help Katrina victims.

No sooner had the team gotten home with their gear still in route they were once again called out by their local FEMA Task Forces as first-responders to assist with this weekend’s hurricane relief efforts.

“Our deepest thanks go to those whose financial support made it possible for our teams to once again respond to a national disaster – this time to assist in the Hurricane Rita rescue efforts,” said Wilma Melville, Search Dog Foundation founder.

One Search Dog supporter, Devon Geiger Nielson said he recently read the accounts of Hurricane Katrina with tears of gratitude and relief that the teams were okay and returning to their families.

“Knowing many of the people and dogs from the Search Dog Foundation makes it that much more personal and I’m so proud of each and every one of these amazing heroes,” he said. “I hope everyone at Search Dog really knows that this supreme dedication means the world to those who depend upon it and to all of us who may personally need it one day, ourselves.”

Returning from the Gulfport and en route to Texas included team member Howard Orr and his dog Duke from the Santa County Fire Department, Deresa Teller and her dog Ranger from Los Angeles City Fire, Debra Tosch, Search Dog executive director and her search canine Abby, and Ron Weckbacher, a civilian dog handler, and his dog Manny.

Returning from New Orleans now staging in Dallas, TX are Su Vodrazka and Hero, his dog from the L.A. Sheriff’s Department among others. From Florida Task Force I (Miami Dade) is Mike Conners and his search dog Hobbes from the Coral Gables Fire & Rescue on second Katrina deployment to New Orleans and also on her second Katrina deployment, returned from Gulfport, and now in New Orleans is Sylvia Arango, a civilian handler, and her search dog Abby.

Twenty-six Search Dog canine disaster search teams were deployed to Gulfport, Biloxi, and New Orleans to assist in the Katrina rescue efforts. The task of the canine teams has varied according to the assignment given to their Task Force during the hurricane deployment. As in former deployments (earthquakes, mudslides, and building collapses among others) the dogs bring great comfort, a sense of normalcy, a feeling of connection and hope, both to traumatized families and to weary rescue workers, according to Tosch.

“I was deployed with my dogs Trapper and Shade as part of Central Florida Task Force 4 on August 30th,” wrote Marshia Hall of the Temple Terrace Fire Department. “We worked 12-hour shifts, stopping often to rest the dogs. There was a real risk posed by contaminated water. I was called out to four other hurricanes last year but you never get used to this.”

Rick Lee and his search dog Ana of the Sacramento City Fire Department also assisted in Katrina relief efforts.

“I was totally unprepared for what I saw,” he said. “The humidity was unbearable.”

“Yesterday we helped rescue a 74-year-old man who was found unconscious and emaciated,” said Steve Pendergrass, a handler who assisted in Katrina efforts with his search dog, Marc of the Kern County Fire Department.

Jeff Place and his search dog Zack of the Fremont Fire Department was another who helped with Katrina victims.

” Zack and I were deployed on August 31s to Biloxi – starting at the coast and working our way inland,” he said. “The harsh conditions were exacerbated by the extreme heat (temperatures were as high as 105 with 92 percent humidity).”

Athena Robbins, a handler, and her dog, Gator from the Bellbrook Fire Department, added to the growing list of search teams that helped with Katrina efforts.

“The canines did an incredible job, searching 500 structures and debris piles,” she reported.

“We left at 7 a.m. and took the ferry across the Mississippi to the fingers of the Bayou south of New Orleans and searched until 5:30 p.m.,” said Marc Valentine, a handler who also assisted Katrina rescue teams with his dog Val of the Montebello Fire Department. “The presence of the dogs has encouraged people to come out who don’t want to leave their homes because of leaving their pets behind. The dogs also bring comfort to the rescue workers. We’re missing our lives, our families back home.”

To make a donation in support of the teams, go to or call 1-888-4K9-HERO.

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