Hurricane Katrina Rescue – Part One

In the days following Hurricane Katrina I watched the news in total disbelief of what was happening in the Gulf Coast.  As the days went by and the human survivors were finally rescued and relocated, attention began to focus on the incredible number of pets that had been left stranded in the area. The internet quickly became the main source of information for and about animal rescuers. It was the only way to find out who to contact or where to go to help in the rescue effort. Without official clearance through an approved rescue group, it was impossible to get into the most devastated areas. There were several main rescue groups that quickly set up make-shift base camps, and hundreds of volunteers traveled from all over the country to join them.

I first made the trip from the Chicago area to the Gulf Coast two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I worked with a group from Best Friends Animal Society who had set up operations on the property of St. Francis Animal Sanctuary in Tylertown, Mississippi. Every day a crew of rescuers would make the trip into the New Orleans area to round up as many animals as possible before the six p.m. curfew forced them to leave the city.

When the large van dubbed “The Big Nasty” returned at night, a call went out and everyone met to begin unloading the day’s “catch.” Most nights the van returned with 50 to 70 rescued animals. Although most of us had already worked 12 hours caring for our charges in the sun and incredible heat and humidity, our energy was renewed when the Nasty got back to camp.

As soon as the van pulled in, we’d line up behind it two by two as crates containing animals were lifted out to us. We’d then carry the crates containing dogs to large holding pens. When all the crates had been unloaded, the dogs were taken out, one at a time, walked and offered water. If we noticed any serious medical issues when handling a dog, they were immediately taken to one of the vets for examination and treatment. We worked late into the night until all the dogs had been walked, watered and returned to their crates. In the morning, they would be evaluated, receive a detox bath if needed, and be moved to an appropriate pen.

I spent a good part of the day administering medications and treatments to dogs with injuries and medical conditions. Because of the heat and humidity, some days it seemed to take forever to make my rounds, find all of the right dogs, and give them their meds. It’s amazing how similar four or five large, male rottweillers can look to one another when you’re trying to figure out who is who!

The temperature every day was well above 100 degrees with heat indexes of up to 120 degrees. The humidity was near 100% and the weather conditions were taking their toll. As we struggled to keep the dogs as cool and comfortable as possible, volunteers were feeling the effects themselves. It was not uncommon to hear of a volunteer passing out or suffering heat stroke. One man even had seizures as a result of heat stroke. Luckily, we had a nurse on the Best Friends staff, and an air conditioned motor home to use for emergencies.

The dogs were housed in pens made with chain link fencing. Plastic tarps were used for shade, and small plastic pools were placed in the large dog pens to aid in cooling. I remember one pit bull who loved jumping and trying to catch the stream of water as he and the other dogs were sprayed with a hose to give them some relief from the heat. We had to carefully watch some of the smallest dogs who struggled with the high heat and humidity. We gave them cooling baths to try to make them more comfortable.

There were several distinct “neighborhoods” around the sanctuary. The section of pens where the new dogs were brought in each night was referred to as “Ellis Island.”  The small and toy breed dogs resided in “Toyland”, and “Pit Bull Alley” was home to the bully breeds and some other large breed dogs.

We also had cats, of course. There was a building on the property that was used to house the many rescued cats and kittens.

Along with the hundreds of cats and dogs housed at the sanctuary were a multitude of other species. We had many rabbits, ducks, geese and even an emu! That one was a bit of a surprise, but he was loaded into the van and brought back with everyone else. We also had lizards and turtles, a pet squirrel and a pot bellied pig.

On my last day in Tylertown I went into St. Bernard Parish with the rescue team. It was a long drive, with a checkpoint where most people were being turned back. Hurricane Rita was due to hit the area very soon, and the authorities were still not letting residents back in. We were fortunate to be allowed through the check point and continued on to St Bernard Parish.

It’s very difficult to describe what we found when we arrived. The first thing I noticed was of course the incredible amount of damage. The word “devastation” has been used repeatedly to describe the aftermath of Katrina, but I can’t think of a better word. It’s hard to believe that any place could look the way those neighborhoods looked. Houses had been floated off their foundations and deposited in the middle of the road. There was debris everywhere. There were refrigerators on rooftops, cars were stuck under houses and hanging from the eaves of other houses. The homes interiors looked as though the house had been picked up and shaken until everything was upside down and out of place. There was a deep, wet layer of  black sludge on the floors and mold was creeping up the walls and over everything. The ground was covered with thick, drying and cracking material that was a combination of everything and anything that had been washed up in the flood. There was a distinct, though unidentifiable odor that permeated the entire area.

The second thing I noticed was how incredibly, eerily quiet it was. There was absolutely no one in the area except for our small group. There were no other people, no working vehicles, no machinery, no sound of any kind. Even the birds were gone. It was a completely unnatural silence.

Except for the military search and rescue teams who checked each house immediately after the flood waters receded, no one had been allowed into St. Bernard Parish for the first two weeks after the hurricane. The authorities believed that nothing could have possibly survived the 25 foot wall of water that crashed down onto St. Bernard. Thankfully, they were very wrong about that.

© Clay Myers, Best Friends Staff Photographer

Within seconds of climbing out of our trucks, we began finding dogs and cats. Many had taken refuge under damaged houses to get relief from the scorching sun. They tended to stay hidden during the day to stay cool, and then venture out after the sun went down. Unfortunately, we only had daylight hours to search because of the strictly enforced curfew. The heat was intense and there was no water anywhere for the animals to drink except what we could carry with us. As we walked through the neighborhoods we gathered animals as we went. Some cats were fairly easy to catch in cages baited with food because they were so hungry. Others were afraid to let us get close enough to catch them. Some of the dogs would come right to us for food, others were more hesitant. Some we just couldn’t catch at all.

One memorable rescue was one we almost missed. We were walking down a street when we passed a house with a camper in the back yard. No one thought anything of it, but I noticed a “Beware of Dog” sign on the back of the camper. Something told me I should check it out, so I went into the yard and knocked on the door of the camper. Sure enough, my knock was answered by a low growl. The door of the camper was locked, and I knew I needed some back-up, so I called to the rest of the rescue crew. While we worked on breaking into the camper, the poor dog became more and more frantic. When we got the door open, we found a rather aggressive terrier mix who was understandably frightened and doing his best to avoid being caught. We did manage to catch him though, and got him safely back to the van.

We were very aware of the six p.m. curfew and too soon we had to head back to Tylertown. With the van packed tight with crated animals, we headed in for the night. I rode in the back of the van to keep an eye on our precious cargo. Crates were bungee corded to the walls and to each other and occasionally slipped out of position due to the movement of the van. I had to reposition and secure crates a few times, but all of our rescued animals made it safely back to Tylertown.

The next day as I was preparing to leave, one of the vets asked me to take an injured dog back with me to care for. The dog had been attacked by two roaming pit bulls shortly after the hurricane and had sustained terrible injuries. His right front leg had to be amputated, and both bones in his left front leg were broken, the main weight bearing one shattered. He had been rushed to a wonderful emergency vet who had kept his practice open to provide much needed emergency medical care to animals left behind. They did everything they could to help the dog and to save his injured leg. Six pins placed in the  bones were held in place with two external fixators. The metal fixators were wrapped with bandage material to keep them stable and to cushion them so the pins wouldn’t cut into the dog when he lay down. It was quite a contraption and we hoped it would be enough to save his remaining front leg.

I was of course, more than happy to take him home and do what I could to help him recuperate. We didn’t know his name, so on the way home I began to call him “Hurricane.”

It was a long drive from Mississippi back to the Chicago area, but Hurricane was a perfect passenger. He rode quietly in his crate, getting out for water and exercise when we stopped for breaks. When we finally got home, Hurricane settled in easily with my other dogs and cats to begin his long recuperation.

Little did I know that two weeks later I’d be leaving him in my family’s care to return to New Orleans.

Katrina Rescue – Part Two