On March 2, a series of deadly tornadoes tore across the Tennessee Valley, the Ohio Valley, and parts of the South. It was a record-breaking storm: 45 confirmed twisters, 41 dead, and a swath of destruction stretching across five states. Along with the utter devastation and the heartbreaking loss of human life, residents in the path of these storms also had to cope with the additional pain of searching for their missing pets, and the very real possibility that the four-legged members of their families might be hopelessly lost, injured, or worse.

Sadly, the plight of animals caught in the wake of disasters — both natural and man-made — is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past decade. There was Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Haitian earthquake, the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, and now the March 2 tornadoes. In every case, relief for the non-human victims of these tragic events has come from individuals, communities and a wide variety of organizations, both big and small.

The biggest of the big, and the most visible in each and every case is the Humane Society of the United States. In the Gulf, in Haiti, in the storm-ravaged states of Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois — the HSUS team is often the first to arrive, and the first to capitalize on tragedy in order to boost their bottom line.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the HSUS raised $34 million — supposedly to help reunite lost pets with their owners. But when all was said and done, when the waters receded and the Humane Cavalry in their bright blue shirts had long since gone home, questions arose about how the donations were used. The Louisiana Attorney General even opened an investigation, closing it 18 months later after HSUS agreed to contribute $600,000 to construction of a shelter at a correctional facility.

It’s true that when disaster strikes, any amount of help is appreciated. But what happens when time passes and the photo opportunities (and, by extension, the opportunities for extra fundraising) disappear? More often than not, the big-name organizations soon disappear, taking their ample disaster funds with them and leaving the long-term reconstruction and relief efforts to small, under-funded local nonprofits.

Last week the HSUS released a new, tear-jerking video of their Animal Recue Team swooping in to tend to a dog buried in the rubble of a tornado-ravaged home in Kentucky. Never mind the fact that the dog had already been dug out of the debris by a private citizen, or that the first group on the scene was not the HSUS team, but a local rescue group, Fur Ever Friends. Clearly this dog could not have been saved without the heroic actions of the HSUS.

While there were many lessons to be learned from both the successes and failures of relief efforts in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the March 2 tornadoes, one of the most striking is the potential for the utter mismanagement of funds by large, national organizations. These past experiences should serve as fair warning to anyone looking to help animals when disaster strikes: instead of helping big organizations with deep pockets who are here today and gone tomorrow in times of crisis, why not support the local groups that will carry on rescuing, rehabilitating and rebuilding — long after the HSUS “cavalry” sounds their retreat?

If you’d like to help animals displaced by the March 2 storms while supporting local shelters and rescues, please visit one (or all!) of these local organizations’ websites to see adoptable pets, supply wish lists, or simply make a donation: