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Longtime Murray Hill Animal Shelter Damaged by Sandy Faces Uncertain Future

By Mary Johnson | November 14, 2012 2:39pm

MURRAY HILL — As Hurricane Sandy churned toward New York City last month, the staff at the century-old animal shelter and hospital Bideawee in Murray Hill set about preparing for the worst.

Every dog in the building was evacuated to Bideawee’s two other facilities in Westhampton and Wantagh on Long Island. The roughly 70 cats at the shelter were moved from the basement to the upper floors of the five-story building on East 38th Street between First Avenue and the FDR.

Two staff members agreed to stay through the storm to watch over the shelter. Hundreds of dollars in supplies were amassed to keep the workers and animals comfortable, and a generator on the roof of the building was stocked with enough fuel to keep the facility powered for three days.

“We took it very seriously,” said Nancy Taylor, president and CEO of Bideawee. “We thought we did everything right, you know?”

But it wasn’t enough — and now the 109-year-old organization is facing an uncertain future.

The shelter lost power during the storm, along with other properties in the area and all of lower Manhattan. When the power stayed off well past the facility’s 72-hour deadline, no oil companies would deliver more fuel to keep the generator going.

The building Bideawee has occupied for a century took on 5 feet of water in its elevator shaft, leaving it beyond repair, Taylor explained.

Two washers and dryers in the basement of the building were ruined. All the pet food that had been stored there is destroyed, as is all the cat litter, staff uniforms and untold amounts of additional supplies.

With the Manhattan facility out of commission, the 70 cats that stayed behind have since been relocated to Bideawee’s two other facilities on Long Island, and the animals are all safe and being well cared for, Taylor said.  

The Westhampton shelter regained power three or four days after the storm, but the Wantagh shelter is still without power. Staff members are able to continue caring for more than 100 animals at the Wantagh facility thanks to a rented commercial generator that costs Bideawee some $6,500 a week, plus $600 a day in diesel fuel, Taylor explained.

“It feels unbelievable. It’s like a never-ending bad dream,” she said.

“It’s as if we’ve gone camping with a few hundred animals and few other campers,” she added. “And camping is overrated.”

The cost is crippling for an organization that operates solely on private donations, Taylor said, but Bideawee has received some substantial contributions since the storm hit. Online, it has pleaded for more in the form of money and bedding, Bideawee’s two biggest needs right now.

“But, you know, it’s nowhere near enough, and I made the decision to continue to pay all my staff," Taylor said. "So everybody’s getting a paycheck, whether they’re able to work or not."

Since the storm hit, staff for the Manhattan Bideawee facility has been commuting daily to Long Island, a trip that takes some employees hours each way.

“They’re very committed to the animals,” Taylor said. “Every waking moment is [spent] caring for the animals.”

The relocation means those in the vicinity of the Murray Hill shelter who may have gone there to rescue animals now must travel to Long Island — a trip that could prove too great for some. 

The Wantagh shelter has also taken in some pets from a shelter in nearby Hempstead, which reached out to Bideawee because its own facility was overflowing, she added.

Those homeless pets bring the total number of animals housed under one roof to more than 200, Taylor said. And although there have been some adoptions at the Bideawee facility in Westhampton, the focus at the Wantagh shelter has been simply to ensure the animals are safe and healthy.

Taylor said there is no current timeline for when the Manhattan shelter could reopen. An insurance adjuster was expected to inspect it this week, allowing Bideawee to move forward with having the shelter and hospital professionally cleaned. Then, Taylor can reassess the prognosis for a return to normal.

“We make a plan for two days out, and then after the second day, we make a plan for two more days and two more days and two more days. That’s how we can do it,” she said.

“We’d love to get at least the animal hospital open for business, even on a limited basis, but we’re taking it day by day.”

In the meantime, Taylor has tasked a veterinary technician with manning the phones, helping people figure out what to do with their sick pets.

For the rest of her staff, Taylor provides everyone with at least one hot meal a day and even helped some get gas during the height of the fuel shortage.

The commitment goes both ways, she said. One employee commuted to Wantagh from Brooklyn on a recent morning to begin walking dogs at 6 a.m.

“Every time I feel a little bit tired, I look at them,” she said, “and it’s easy to keep going.”

A spokesman for the ASPCA said it has not received widespread reports of shelters damaged by Hurricane Sandy in the New York City area. But the organization is offering disaster relief grants to those affected by the storm to help offset the cost of animal rescue, care and relief.