When a hurricane or other weather emergency hits, people often must leave their homes. Past disasters have taught emergency responders just how much evacuees care about their animals — and organizations now help pets safe during major disasters.

In Philadelphia a smaller group is saving animals when their owners face smaller, more personal disasters such as a house fire.

It wasn't easy for George Umstead to leave his Chihuahua behind when Hurricane Sandy triggered a transformer fire.

"His name is Taco, and in December he'll be 16 years old," Umstead said. I got him when he was 6 months old. "But Umstead says he had little choice but to separate from his friendly dog who usually follows him around.

After the fire at Umstead's Delaware County apartment, he had to find shelter elsewhere. But he didn't know what to do with Taco. He left his beloved Chihuahua in the damaged apartment and had someone stop to check on him and feed him.

"The animal control people were going to take him away and ... somebody told me about Red Paw," he said. "I called them up to see if they would be able to help and they did.

"They came out and took him and are going to put him in a foster home until my apartment's completed again where I can move back in and I can pick him back up."

Umstead says it makes him feel better to know Taco is in a loving foster home instead of locked in a cage at a shelter.

Working with the Red Cross

Taco ended up safe and sound because of a call a little earlier in the day from Jennifer Leary, the founder of the Red Paw Emergency Team.

"We work with the Red Cross when they go out to respond to fires and other disasters that displace people," said Leary of South Philadelphia. "If the people have pets they call us up, we respond and take care of their pets -- providing emergency transport, emergency vet care, emergency shelter. We are the first and as far as we can tell the only organization in the nation doing this."

Leary says Red Paw mainly works with dogs and cats, but has helped snakes, turtles and ferrets. She says the emergency responders have realized they can't forget about pets when helping people.

"Everybody saw happened during Hurricane Katrina. I think the biggest lesson learned from that was how to handle pets and just the connection that people have with their animals," she said. "People won't leave without their animals, they won't eat before their pets eat, they won't evacuate unless they can evacuate with their pets."

Leary, a Philadelphia firefighter and Red Cross emergency responder, started the organization after seeing how little assistance was available for pets at disaster scenes.

"It's just heartbreaking to see people who have lost everything, then also have to make this horrible decision of either surrendering their animals or leaving them inside the burnt-out fire dwelling by themselves," she said. "Just the agony that they would go through, I'd just see it time and time and time again."

Foster homes in time of trouble

Leary says a lot of people don't have family or friends who are willing to take their pets.

Sitting quietly next to her is one dog Red Paw is helping.

Nicole Lasorda, an account supervisor for a Philadelphia public relations firm, is fostering the 2-year-old black and brown pitbull mix.

"She's a good girl," says Lasorda. "Are you a good girl?"

Lasorda, who lives in Blue Bell, has clearly has fallen in love with this dog from North Philly.

"Amore, she's very, very spoiled and very, very sweet. Her daddy was in a fire and she saved his life. She woke him up and got him out of the house," said Lasorda. "I have her now until he is back on his feet and ready to take her back."

Lasorda says it will be tough to give back this sweet dog, but if something happened to her she'd feeling better knowing someone else was taking good care of her cats.

Red Paw is funded through donations. The operation is largely run out of Leary's house and she says she's trying to raise money so Red Paw can have a place to call its own.