When Kenny Chesney sprang into action last year following Hurricane Irma’s devastation of his beloved St. John, he had every resident in mind — including those with four legs.
The country star, 50, and his assistant Jill “literally cleaned out the animal shelters” in St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Vieques, Puerto Rico, bringing around 1,400 needy cats and dogs to the United States through a partnership between his Love for Love City Foundation, Victory Air and Big Dog Ranch Rescue, he shares in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “That makes me feel incredible,” he shares.
Ironically, at the same time he was rescuing these dogs, he lost his own. In the days after the storm, Chesney brought several of the friends who had sheltered in his St. John home to stay in his Nashville house as they tried to figure out their next moves.
With them came Cookie, the 18-year-old pit bull mix the singer calls his island dog. But soon after arriving, the dog died in his assistant’s arms.
“She was older, so it was timing more than anything, but she was a big part of my life,” he says. “On my next trip down we took her ashes and said goodbye and scattered them in the ocean. I didn’t want her to be buried anywhere else. I wanted her to be a part of the fabric of where she lived her whole life.”
Cookie’s death ignited his passion for helping the animals who’d been left behind. “The post-Irma island was just a terrible existence and no place for a dog,” he says. “A lot of people had to leave their dogs behind — there are a lot of animals that had to ride out these storms and live in the aftermath with no food, no nothing.”
With Irma’s one-year anniversary approaching, Chesney plans to donate the proceeds from his new album, Songs for the Saints to his Love for Love City Foundation.
“It consumed my year,” he says. “The tour, Love for Love City, the dog rescue. It’s been a really interesting journey. I feel like I have a little bit more compassion and empathy in my life than I did before.”
Thanks to his generous contributions — and the immediate action of fans — “there was a lot of money that was raised,” he says. “I’m very proud of that.” But “it pales in comparison to what we need,” he adds.
For more on Kenny Chesney, his new album and the musician’s relief efforts, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.