Mike Merrill has rescued animals from disasters and war zones, but as Hurricane Ian barreled down on Florida, he realized that his next mission would be saving animals in his home state.
Earlier this year, Merrill coordinated with other rescue workers from France, Austria and Portugal to save dogs from conflict zones in Ukraine. There he crossed the border from Poland to rescue 44 dogs and six cats.
But he said rescuing animals near Jacksonville ahead of Hurricane Ian with his animal rescue organization Florida Urgent Rescue (FUR) was uniquely difficult.
"That's a different type of challenge here where we're kind of in the path of the storm ourselves ... we're personally affected as well, and all of our other fosters and volunteers are affected," he said. "The good news is that we're close to home, and the bad news is that we're close to home."
His goal: To keep dozens of dogs from suffering in outdoor kennels amid the ferocious storm as it lashed his home state.
Merrill knows that without his help relocating at-risk animals from shelters already close to full, more cats and dogs could face euthanization amid a predictable overcrowding that hits shelters following a natural disaster.
In the case of one of the U.S.' worst hurricanes, Louisiana ASPCA estimates as many as 104,000 pets were left behind during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with over 15,500 animals ultimately rescued.
Instead of suffering through the storm, or worse, the animals relocated by Merrill rode out the hurricane in loving foster homes or safe shelters out of the path of the storm.
It's a complex operation that requires advanced planning to build out a network of shelters and foster homes ready to help when disaster strikes.
GET TEXT UPDATES: Sign up here for text updates on Hurricane Ian.
HURRICANE IAN TRACKER: Where is Ian headed? See the map.
His first foray into animal rescue efforts in disaster relief came after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Louisiana in 2017, and since then, Merrill and FUR have coordinated fostering and relocation efforts related to nine hurricanes, including Hurricane Ian.
"Any kind of storm, it's terrifying for these dogs, much less a hurricane or some sort of a major event," Merrill said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Ian animal rescue: Cats, dogs saved from storm by group