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After destruction, joy in Joplin as animals reunite with their owners

From Lindy Hall, CNN
  • 370 animals have been brought into the Joplin Animal Shelter, its director says
  • Of those, 98 had been reunited with their family members as of Thursday night
  • They include a lab named Betty, who was rescued after 5 days in the rubble

Joplin, Missouri (CNN) -- Except for scraps of drywall where a bathroom once stood -- and where he, his wife and their six children huddled as 200 mph winds ripped through -- Jeremy Williams said that his family's Joplin two-story home was gone.

And so too, he feared, was the family's dog, Betty.

Five days later, those fears evaporated in the form of wet kisses and big hugs in the back of a pick-up truck outside the Joplin Humane Society. A registered nurse from Carbondale, Illinois, had found Betty under what had once been the Williams' home -- hungry and a bit dehydrated, but otherwise in good shape.

"Not a scratch on her, oh my goodness," Williams said as he reuinted with the dog Thursday. "You're going to get some good food now."

More people died in Sunday night's tornado in Joplin than any other such event since modern record-keeping began 61 years ago. And the impact on the southwest Missouri city's animal population has been devastating as well.

While no statistics have been released on the number of dogs, cats and other creatures killed, the Joplin Humane Society has taken in 370 live animals affected by the crisis, its executive director Karen Aquino said. Some of those suffered injuries -- from scratches to broken bones that required amputations -- while others were picked up by search-and-rescue teams scouring the city looking for signs of life.

"We have been in crisis mode," Aquino said. "We needed to send a couple (of animals to other medical hospitals), but most of them were worried, banged up or stressed out of their minds."

So, too, were many of the animals' owners -- the loss of their homes and belongings compounded by the loss of a pet that had been part of their family.

As of Thursday evening, that despair has given way to joy 98 times, when families were reunited with their pets.

Aquino described the Lance family, with two young children, who'd been away when the tornado rolled through and destroyed their home.. Their dog -- a chocolate Labrador named Samson -- was blown away and landed in a storm culvert. It was there that rescuers found him, his toenails essentially filed away as he desperately tried to stay above water.

"They didn't have anything left, but to find their family member alive (was) so heartwarming," said Aquino.

Less uplifting are reports the executive director mentioned of people trying to take other people's animals -- like some have stolen property from homes and stores in recent days. For that reason, everyone looking to reunite with their pet are asked to fill out paperwork, to help confirm that they are the owner.

"The best in the people come out, and the worst in people come out," said Aquino.

By the best, Jeremy Williams would point to people like Jay Garrett, the nurse from Illinois who came to Joplin to help out. He had answered a call from a cousin, a paramedic who lived near Joplin..

For five days, he had searched around the city, mostly for human survivors. While his rescue team came across plenty of grisly reminders of the storm, until Thursday they had found few signs of life until spotting Betty in the rubble.

"After five days, you don't expect anything," said Garrett. ""That's a testimony to the will to survive of a living being."

Williams described his dog as part husky, part golden Labrador and generally "the best mutt in the world." He had already been rescued once nine years earlier -- from his first owner, said Williams, who he said beat her when she was a puppy -- and now has been saved again.

That is why -- his house flattened, his belongings everywhere -- Williams was the picture of happiness Thursday.

"That means everybody in our house is totally safe," an ecstatic Williams said. "We all thought she was gone (but) we all made it. Betty was the last one."