You probably remembers playing ‘telephone’ as a kid. You sit in a circle, pass a message around, and see how it comes out on the other end. But during an emergency, when new information comes fast, lives are at stake, and normal lines of communication get disrupted – two cans on a string might be a better analogy than a phone. During Hurricane Harvey, information was scarce, and what people did find out was often wrong, and fueled by fear – creating a high-pressure version of the telephone game.
Most people in Harvey’s path experienced a few stressful, hectic days. But that may be truer for Matthew Fortenberry than for most. He directs the City of Beaumont’s Animal Care Services division. He’s been there for over two decades, working his way to the top. When Harvey hit, Fortenberry spent his days rescuing pets from flooded houses, taking care of them and connecting them with owners. On top of that, his own house was flooded.
“We had, depending on what room you’re in, anywhere from about three feet, to four and a half, to five feet in the bathroom and one of the bedrooms. But it was in every room of the house,” Fortenberry says.
The house is now gutted, just like most of his neighbors’ homes.
Between long hours rescuing animals, and keeping tabs on his family’s property, Fortenberry had his hands full. The last thing he needed was the call he got during the thick of the rescue effort from the city’s emergency management office.
“We hadn’t heard anything until they called us and said, ‘Hey on social media there’s going a rumor around that animal services is picking up all the rescued animals and just putting them down.’ Which that was just totally false,” Fortenberry says.
The rumor reveals the challenges of communicating during a catastrophe. But if it’s false, then where did it come from? That’s tough to say, but one way it spread was through someone who was just trying to help.
“I did not see any evidence of euthanizing dogs. It would have been very difficult for them to hide euthanasia at that facility,” says Jennifer Sprague, a veterinarian from Pipe Creek, outside San Antonio.
She and Tom Vaccarella run Safe K9 Transports, a company that moves dogs from shelters where they may be euthanized to places with fewer dogs, where they may find a home.
Sprague and Vaccarella went to southeast Texas to help animals that were in harm’s way. They saved and cared for hundreds of animals, bringing a lot of them to Ford Park in Beaumont. It’s an enormous event space that usually hosts concerts and sporting events, but animals were brought there during the storm. Vacarrella had filmed Facebook Live videos during the entire journey. He recorded one at Ford Park.
In one section, he pans over empty dog crates:
“If you look over there, all those crates are empty. Or at least most of them are, there’s some dogs in them,” Vacarrella narrates.
He went on to comment about how he didn’t see many pit bulls in the facility. But that was it. No claims of euthanasia. On Facebook though, people shared the video, and posted these comments to the contrary.