Storm Chaser

By Teri Errico Griffis

When Firefighter EMT Steven Michaels headed to work the day before Hurricane Matthew hit, he knew he would have a hand in saving the islands, local homes and possibly even lives. He never expected one of those lives would be a dog’s—or that he’d end up bringing it home.

It was the Friday before Matthew made direct contact with the Lowcountry and Michaels, who worked at Station 4 on Kiawah, was relocated to Station 5 on Johns Island. As he pulled up that morning, he saw a dog running around in front. “I didn’t think anything of it at first. He didn’t look stray so my first impression was, ‘Okay, somebody brought their dog to work.’ It was a hurricane and I could completely understand why,” Michaels said.

Eventually he settled into his day, and began asking about the dog. He heard that a family living in the neighborhood boarded up their home and left—without their pet. It struck a chord with Michaels. “He seemed extremely friendly, which was odd for a stray dog,” Michaels said of the Labrador mix. “You’d think he would be malnourished or dirty, but the dog was fairly clean. He was healthy. He looked like he was actually kept inside,” Michaels said. “So it was weird someone would leave a perfectly healthy dog behind during the storm.”

Charleston Animal Society CEO Joe Elmore agrees that there is no excuse for leaving a pet behind in a storm evacuation, but adds the state must do better to offer more shelters for people with pets. “We don’t know what factors led to the decision this family made to leave their dog behind, but we have to do better as a community to make more options available for pet owners.”

Right off the bat Michaels blurted out he should take the dog home. He was in the market for a dog—though he was hoping for a German Shepard. “If someone was going to leave him behind, obviously they don’t want him,” he rationalized. Michaels sent pictures of the dog to his girlfriend, with whom he has a 16-month old daughter. “My girlfriend pretty much gave me the green light.”

The next step was to check in with his County Chief. As a public servant, Michaels didn’t want the word to get out that a firefighter “stole” a dog. But his Chief and the deputies he worked with during the hurricane were all on his side.

Michaels and his crew brought the dog indoors and though it was well-behaved, they decided it best to keep it contained. Because of all the emergency calls, the men created a makeshift leash so the dog didn’t get in the way of the truck coming and going from the station. “We tied him up in the middle of the bay and he did great,” Michaels said. “He never once showed signs of aggression. He was very friendly. He never barked. It was very odd! When we’d come back he would come right up to us.”

Following nearly 50 hours of work, Michaels headed home and made the decision to take the dog with him. Aside from a broken set of blinds a few days into his stay, the dog behaved incredibly well—though Michaels did buy a crate in hopes of halting any further destruction. Surprisingly enough, the dog was crate-trained. It was also house broken and had zero separation issues.

Months later, there hasn’t been a peep from the former owners, and the dog has settled in nicely with Michaels and his family. They’re attending training classes and the dog is even showing genuine affection to Michaels. “He’ll come sit next to you and put his paw on you and keep pawing until you acknowledge him,” he laughs. “So one man’s loss is another man’s gain, I guess!”

It took two weeks for Michaels to figure out a name for his new family member. While everyone encouraged him to call the dog Matthew, it was too easy. “I was looking into something like a Greek god or having to do with wind and rain, but in the end I ended up going with Chaser—short for storm chaser.”  It’s a much more adventurous name for a dog with such an exciting story.