When Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm with winds gusts up to 200 miles per hour, hit the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 6, every update seemed worse than the last. Residents who’d hoped the hurricane would turn north faced facts, began collecting supplies and hunkering down. One of those families was Ryan and Tiffany Moore, their two young sons Conner and Dylan and their dog, Tug.
When the Moores ventured outside a day later, “It looked like an atomic bomb went off,” Tiffany Moore tells PEOPLE. “It was a total war zone. [We’re on a hill and] the roofs of two houses below ours were now in our yard. It was like that for a lot of houses. It was just mass destruction.”
Although the Moores didn’t lose their home, it was flooded, and the entire island was without power and water. As manager of St. John’s Animal Care Center, Ryan Moore finally was able to check on the dogs and cats at the shelter, while Tiffany went into town. She found out a private charter boat was leaving the island that afternoon, bound for Puerto Rico. The couple made a split-second decision that it was in their little boys’ best interest for Tiffany to evacuate St. John before another impending hurricane hit. Ryan, however, decided he needed to stay because of his responsibility to the shelter.
“The thing about Ryan I fell in love with from the beginning is his loyalty, passion and commitment to animals and his work,” says Tiffany. “He made that decision, I’m so proud of him that he did. Nobody knew what was coming, that Hurricane Maria would be following a week later. He wanted to be there and manage, and make sure all the dogs were ok.”
The shelter stayed fairly intact, but there was a large hole that had blown out through the back wall in the cat room. Luckily, all the cats were still safe and in their cages. There was also flooding below the shelter, and a mudslide had caused the porch to collapse on the right side of the building. Moore’s been fixing up the structure to keep the animals safe and dry, as well as taking care of the animals.
Despite obvious communication challenges, Ryan’s animal rescue efforts took off. He got in contact with an organization called IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), and began conversations with its disaster relief team. Moore worked as hard as he could to get people on the ground in St. John to assist and eventually evacuate the pets off the island. Throughout this ordeal, he’s remained optimistic that he’ll get the job done, which includes accounting for every single rescue animal already in the shelter, as well as the pets who were left behind by their families who, in many cases, had no choice in the matter.
PEOPLE spoke with Shannon Walajtys, IFAW Manager for Disaster Response, about the dire situation in the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean at large. Her team had mobilized to assess the impact of Hurricane Irma to the animals of St. Thomas and St. John at the request of Moore and other local authorities who asked for aid.
The group’s mission was multifold: to assess how many pets were left behind when their owners had to evacuate, to understand the circumstances under which these animals were abandoned and how to create alternatives for pet owners in the future, to assess the state of the strays and “community” animals (such as donkeys and horses, who are also in desperate need of aid) on the islands, to assist and reunite the families who are currently separated from their pets, and most immediately, to deliver food and personnel to help the animal care staff currently on St. Thomas and St. John.
To that last point, Walajtys’ team, with the help of transport and additional man power courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard, was able to deliver a literal ton — 2,800 lbs. — of dog food, donated by Royal Canin and PetSmart through GreaterGood.org, to St. Thomas and St. John. There was so much food, the IFAW team and Coast Guard crew formed a human chain to offload the bags onto St. Thomas. Getting the food to St. John was another challenge, and again the IFAW team found incredible assistance through an “ad hoc” group calling themselves Love City Strong. (To read more about this dedicated mission in detail, click here.)
Upon arrival to the island, the IFAW team discovered both the animal shelter and the veterinary clinic, Canines Cats & Critters, on St. John were at double their normal capacity. Some of the pets were already living at the shelter, some were strays, some were abandoned during the storm, but many were taken in as a favor to residents who were fleeing the island but not allowed to bring their pets with them. To that end, Moore and IFAW are working to not only get these animals into rescues up north, but also to reunite many of the pets with their families who had to evacuate.
“This is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve,” Walajtys tells PEOPLE of Moore. “He’s a professional, but has a softness that comes out with the animals. He’s proud of his staff and the animals.”
On Sept. 18, Animal Care Center of St. John posted a message on Facebook to update residents and concerned friends Stateside. While IFAW’s arrival was a huge help, they were forced to evacuate due to Hurricane Maria.
“St. John Animal Care Center welcomed IFAW to perform a needs assessment after the devastation of Hurricane Irma for the animals under our care. With Maria approaching the IFAW Disaster Response Team was ordered to evacuate,” the post states. “They are currently en route back to the continental United States, and are coordinating another team of responders and an aircraft to evacuate our beloved animal friends currently held at the Animal Care Center. Ryan reports that all the animals are comfortable and he has enough supplies for a week to care for them.”
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Ryan’s wife Tiffany tells PEOPLE that once FEMA lets IFAW back into the territory, and once the rest of the animals are situated for evacuation, she will figure out how to get both Ryan and their dog Tug up to Connecticut to reunite with them.
“Every single day since Irma hit, Ryan has been at the shelter,” says Tiffany. “For 14-plus days straight, for hours on end. He has a skeleton crew of staff, really just volunteers at this point, and board members, Lucy Banks and Diana Ripley, who have been so helpful. But it’s been long, grueling days making sure the animals are fed, given water, walked, and kept in as sanitary conditions as they can be with what they’re working with down there. He’s watching over as much as he can, until they can evacuate the rest of the dogs in a timely manner and get them into rescues Stateside.”
On Saturday, Ryan checked in with his community of concerned, proud and grateful friends and family on Facebook.
“Cast away Ryan checking in today got some wifi service,” he wrote. “First off I want to tell my wife how much I love her and happy first birthday to Dylan its very hard for me not to be there but i know u will have family and friends around. I am doing fine i find myself talking to myself a lot these days, my beard is greasy and every joint and bone in my body aches but i know i’m getting closer to the end goal. With Hurricane Maria our relief team was forced to evacuate and the shelter animals were not able to get out. We did fine and we are hoping for their arrival again next week to get the dogs and cats safely stateside. I should be going with the transport as well so hopefully this time next week i’ll be stateside if all goes well. This has been the hardest 3 weeks of my life i just want to thank everyone and most importantly my family for giving me support. My phone is still in and out so its hard for me to respond to everyone so many message. i don’t even know where to start I’m working hard to get stateside to family. Thanks everyone ill keep checking in. #lovecitystrong”
In the wake of Harvey, the media attention on Irma hitting Florida, and now the battering of Puerto Rico by Maria, some residents feel that there hasn’t been as much word spread about the mass destruction in the U.S. Virgin Islands, particularly St. John.
“They forget that we’re all U.S. citizens who live there and pay federal taxes. There needs to be awareness. The storm that made landfall was the strongest category 5 ever recorded in the Atlantic. We need to get the word out about the people who are helping there with the rebuilding effort,” says Tiffany.
Even though Ryan is aiming to finish his animal welfare mission and finally leave St. John this week to reunite with his family, his wife admits they don’t know what’s ahead. However, they are looking forward to eventually reuniting with their island family — human and four-legged.
“Storms aside, Ryan has a gift for connecting with animals,” says Tiffany. “He ensures the welfare of every single one that walks through those shelter doors, placing them in the right homes, giving them forever homes. He’s done amazing things.”
To find out more and to help donate towards animal relief and rebuilding efforts in the Virgin Islands and the greater Caribbean region, here are a few organizations you can support:
Love for Love City Foundation: Donation initiative started by musician Kenny Chesney, who has a home on St. John
US Virgin Island Relief Fund: Donation page started by former NBA star Tim Duncan, who is from the U.S. Virgin Islands