Ice House

Where Do Animals Go During a Hurricane?

Harvey left us wondering: do critters hunker down during natural disasters?

By Morgan Kinney October 30, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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That first Wednesday after Harvey—the day after the sun finally broke through—Kelly Norrid took a walk through his neighborhood and stopped at a shallow pool near a culvert. Hundreds of coastal plains toad tadpoles were darting back and forth in the puddle, a sight so spectacular he took a video and shared it with his coworkers. “Hey see,” the urban biologist wrote to his colleagues at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, “the flood wasn’t all bad!”

Glimpses of how animals fared throughout the storm appeared between shots of the Cajun Navy and operations at the George R. Brown Convention Center: a hawk, quickly dubbed “Harvey,” flew into a taxi cab and refused to leave; folks happened upon gators and snakes in their backyards and curbsides; and, of course, there were those navies of floating fire ants patrolling floodwaters like German U Boats.

“I can’t think of any other animals that are like fire ants,” says Diana Foss, another TPWD urban biologist, but most animals follow the same rule of thumb as we do during floods: get to higher ground. However, humans (mostly) live on Houston’s higher ground, which leads to three-toed box turtles in garages, wild boars in driveways, and raccoons in attics—all great places to survive a flood, if undisturbed. “It’s just staying away from the people at that point,” Foss says, gently wagging her finger at people tempted to feed human food to deer and other animals. “People are sometimes too willing to ‘help.’”

Certain animals, like the alligator snapping turtle, may practice the time-honored tradition of hunkering down. Norrid, who specializes in reptiles and amphibians, says the turtles likely hung out at the bottom of Buffalo Bayou during the storm; one electronically tagged turtle—the same one that stopped traffic on Memorial Drive—was found to have moved less than an eighth of a mile throughout the entirety of Harvey.

Generally, Foss and Norrid say hurricanes come at a good time for wildlife. Come fall, nesting birds have already hatched several rounds of babies, some of whom have fledged. Animals like deer and squirrels gave birth in the spring, so their offspring are more developed. This means even younger animals are capable of flying, swimming or running to safety. Without the extreme winds of a storm like Hurricane Ike in 2008, animals were better equipped to weather Harvey’s floods—deer, for example, are surprisingly capable swimmers.

The puddle of tadpoles shows just how quickly nature can bounce back, and Norrid is quick to note how regularly it floods in Houston, with each animal adapted to survive natural disasters. Populations will fluctuate (more mosquitoes) and food sources will change (different vegetation), but neither biologist seems alarmed about Harvey’s impact on nature. Really, Norrid says, you shouldn’t worry about how the wild animals fare in a hurricane: “It’s the two-legged wildlife that does worse in these things.”

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