This week marks the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, devastating a city and breaking apart a community. There are no shortage of odes to Katrina this week, or this month. And I'm sure many more will follow. And maybe by writing some of the parts of this series I may not be doing it for anyone's benefit other than my own.
But Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans. And Hurricane Katrina changed me.
So for the next week or so I'm going to share a few thoughts on the experience. 10 years sure has allowed me more opportunity to put my time in New Orleans in perspective -- for not only how it changed me personally, but how it changed welfare for animals in this country. Yes, I'll talk about the rescue efforts, and the friends, and the lives saved, and the lives lost. And yes, there is the PETS Act, a lasting sign of the importance of pets to people. But there is more.
Today I'm going to start with my trip diary. These words were written in the weeks following our trip to help with rescue efforts in Gonzales following the Hurricane. I haven't read this in years, and thankful for the Google Wayback machine for helping me find them in their original form.
The following are my most memorable events from our trip. This was all done in retrospect, so some details may be filled in as best I can. My goal is to give you an idea of not only what things were like in Gonzales, but also how it felt to be there. The people there were amazing. The animals were even more amazing. There was happiness, and sadness. Someone asked me today whether or not we had a good time. I don't know how to answer that. Yes? No? I simply told them I was really glad I went. It would take me hours to answer the question. Hopefully they'll get a chance to read this.
Day 1 - The Trip
Wednesday, Sept 21- We have no idea what to pack. Information of what our environment will be like is in short supply. Some reports say to bring a tent. Some say they will provide shelter. We get varying reports on food and water. There's another hurricane (Rita) coming. Not sure where that is going to hit either. I've never been on a trip before with so little information about what would be ahead of me on the trip. But we're going. And we'repacking everything. Tent. Food. Bedding. We're preparing to be prepared. This will be an adventure.
Day 2 - Arrival
Thursday, Sept 22 6:00 - We arrive. The tension is really high. At first, I'm not sure whether it's my personal tension, or whether it's the tension at Lamar-Dixon - an equine center just outside of Gonzales , LA (about 25 miles south of Baton Rouge ). We have no idea what we're getting into. What are we going to do? How can we best help? And what is up with this hurricane?
For the last 2 hours we've been in minimal traffic in our lane - with bumper-to-bumper traffic heading the opposite direction. They're all evacuating from the incoming hurricane. We're going the other direction. When we get there, the other workers at Lamar-Dixon were stressed too. You could tell they held the same uncertainty of what was to follow. How bad would the weather get? Would we need to evacuate? Would we need to evacuate the dogs? No one was certain.
In the first 3 hours we were there, the word on what would happen changed several times.We're given instructions to go to the volunteer tent and claim our cots, then come back to help. So we're off to the tent. The volunteer tent is a huge, white tent that is lined with cots - over 300 of them. After a little looking, we found four cotsand with a little manipulation, we were able to get them side-by-side. We set all of our bedding on the cots, and like the others before us, we put our clothes and supplies underneath. Off to the kennels.
We get back to the kennels (about a ¼ mile from the tent) just in time for a meeting. Through a megaphone, all 200 volunteers are given instructions. We're getting the kennels ready for the hurricane. About 150 dogs are getting shipped out -where they are safe from the storm - fortunately they will all be part of a prison-adoption program at the prison facility in Jackson, MS. These dogs will be adopted by prisoners. This is a first in this area, but these programs have been very successful in other areas. The dogs get a caring owner, the prisoners learn responsibility. We are going to be allowed to stay in the volunteer tent tonight, but it will be taken down after tonight for the hurricane. Don't know what tomorrow night holds, but there's work to do tonight.
We're assigned to Barn 5. The barns are basically covered horse stalls that are open on all sides. Our objective is to get everything that is being stored outside of the barn or in the outside stalls into the inside of the barn. The plan is to get everything that will blow around during a windstorm tied down. They're going to bring RVs and semis in to surround the barns to block the wind. I'm impressed with how much thought they've given to this.
Our group works on taking down protective fencing, and moving food/water bowls to the inside of the barn. Allfood and water bowls are washed after every feeding. Some of the dogs are ill - and they don't want to cross-contaminate the dogs. We move a lot of other things to the inside stalls. We work until almost 2 am. We're off to bed. I wake up a few times due to the heavy winds, but the weather is holding nicely so far.
Day 3 - Hurricane
Friday, Sept 23 We're up and at 'em by 7:30. We need to feed and water the dogs first thing in the morning. There are about 1200 dogs and cats in five barns. About 75% are Pit Bulls. That's a lot of food and water. We work in teams of two. One person takes the dog out for a walk (poop, pee, etc) while the other cleans out the cage (many of the dogs were not kennel trained or had to be in their kennel so long they could not hold it), and provides food and water. Finally, one of the volunteers then fill out the log, making notes of if the dog pottied, ate, or got walked. The log is affixed to the top of the crate in a plastic bag with all of the paperwork that show the dog's intake photo, microchip number, and pertinent vetting information.
Many volunteers have left because of the storm, so we're a little short handed. It takes a long time to clean the cages of 1200 dogs. We finally finish up around 2:00. It takes a little longer than most days. On three different occasions our barn manager lets out three sharp whistles and shouts through a bullhorn for us to take cover in concrete bathrooms because of tornado warnings in the area. Apparently the areas in green on TV screens that surround the eyes of hurricanes are filled with mini-tornados. This is news to me - Midwesterners are pretty ignorant about hurricanes. I learned a lot while we talk in the bathroom with the locals. Apparently the tornados are part of the deal. It is already raining pretty hard at times... At 3:00 we are told that we will have to evacuate. Skeleton crews - 10 per barn - will stay behind to ride out the storm with the animals. We're given three different options. There is a shelter set up for us by FEMA. They will bus us there. The facility has showers. That's a plus. There is also room for 40 people at a local church. No showers, but we get to drive ourselves. The third option is to drive ourselves wherever we want to go. They recommend that hotels will be easiest to find in Birmingham or Jackson . Both are 4 hours or more away. We opt to stay at the church. The idea of leaving our car behind and putting our fate in the hands of FEMA doesn't seem appealing - we'd seen FEMA's work in New Orleans.
We use the temporary showers at Lamar-Dixon (shower heads put in horse washing stations surrounded by tarps) and then head out to the United Methodist Church in Gonzales. We stop at Taco Bell on the way - it might be our last hot meal in a while. The church is again full of cots, and the congregation has provided some basic food for us. They were very kind to take us in. At the church, we start talking with the others who opted to stay there. They are jealous of our showers. All are eager to get back to the kennels. We hope the storm isn't as bad as it is supposed to be. One of the people at the church has a portable TV, so we watch the storm coverage. The storm is moving north more than they thought - but is losing power because part of the storm was over southern Louisiana. We're not really sure what that means for us. Is it going to be better? Or worse? We're told to use towels the pastor provided to soak up any water that comes in through the church doors over the night. At 10:00, it's lights out. We're really tired, so sleeping is easy minus a few snorers in the group.
Day 4 - The Aftermath
Saturday, Sept 24 at 7:00 - I'm wide awake. I go outside to have a look. We've clearly gotten a lot of rain (in fact, it's still raining). There are a lot of tree limbs down, a few trees are blown over, and standing wateraround, but it appears that we've survived the worst of the storm. I go in and get a little more shut-eye. After more talking in the church, a few of us go out and pick up some of the tree branches out of the church lawn. It's the least we can do for them. Around 11:30, someone from the HSUS comes by and tells us we are going to be accepted back at the shelter. It will only be the volunteers from the church location - the FEMA shelter won't come back because the weather is still threatening enough to keep them from transporting those volunteers back. We made a great choice on where to stay. We pack up and head out. We're back at the shelter by 2:00.
Back at the Kennels
Michelle and I show up in Barn 2 - we were reassigned. The Barn manager is SO happy to see us. No one there has slept much and they're very short handed. Many of the dogs are still lying in their own feces from the night before. It takes a lot of volunteers to take care of that many animals. We instantly get to work with our still skeleton crew (although nearly double the crews that were there) and start cleaning cages and feeding/wateringthe animals. We can't take them for good walks yet - it's still not safe to get them far away from the barns - but at least they will be cleaned and fed.
Melissa and Abby get assigned to Barn 5 again, where they again meet up with BadRap volunteers (two of who weathered the hurricane in the barn on the skeleton crew the night before) and start cleaning kennels and feeding/watering dogs. At one point, they get to watch BadRap perform a temperament test on a possible pit/American Bulldog mix, and they get to see a few lucky dogs who have already been tested go to a rescue arranged through their group.
Michelle and I get asked to stay through the night to keep watch on the animals. Apparently there have been some problems with people coming to the facilities and stealing the animals. I hate people sometimes. Michelle and I jump on the opportunity - they need the help and honestly, we don't know where we'll stay tonight if we have to evacuate the property again. This will solve that problem. We finish up late again. Midnight. A friend who we've met over the past 2 days, Arjian, has met some people who are going to be out tonight - so they have allowed us to sleep in their trailer. We accept the offer. We crawl in bed around 12:30. Our Night shift is from 5am - 7am. It's going to be a short night.
Day 5 - Back to work, Business as usual
Sunday, Sept 25 - the 5-7 shift is pretty uneventful. There are a lot of people around - they're sending crews back into the city to rescue more dogs today for the first time in several days. At 7:00, it's time for the morning food/water/walking. Michelle and I notice that a lot of the animals in our new shelter area are kennel-trained. Because there are no other volunteers around, Michelle and I work to take out all of the animals who haven't messed their cages before we clean and feed. It's extra work, but these poor animals! It is really sad because you realize they were someone's pet. someone is probably looking for them. With five shelters around similar to this one, and with animals getting shipped out regularly, it must be impossible for owners to find their animals. It makes me sad. Many of them will never get back together.
By 9:30 or so, we're almost back to a close-to-normal group of volunteers. Michelle and I are assistant barn managers and are helping the new volunteers learn what needs to be done and helping them out. There is a woman named Kelly in my group who has been there for several days. Kelly is probably 60 and just loves these animals. There is one puppy that is very sick. She is very concerned so we get a vet to come check her out. We're given some special food to help her digest better.
Something new for me today. They are letting owners of lost dogs back in to look for their dogs. They are all coming through with special nametags looking. They all look so sad and frustrated. I try to talk to some of them. "What kind of dog are you looking for?" I ask. They vary in their responses. Two just start crying when I ask. I feel horrible for these people. One woman is looking for a Dachsund. I shake my head. I haven't seen one. They're not exactly the best swimmers. She starts to cry. She's the last person I ask.
Meanwhile, Melissa and Abby are over in Barn 5 and right about the time that Melissa realizes she's not sure she can cope with saying goodbye to her special buckskin, bellyrub-loving boy tomorrow, Furry Friends Foundation shelter director Catherine shows up and distracts her, thankfully. They get through the rest of their shift -barely. Abby finally asks Melissa to go and get the ball rolling on what dogs we are going to take back with us to get her out of there. Abby stays back at Barn 5, finishing the dogs before she meets up with the BadRap gang, now being introduced to Furry Friends folks.
We finally get done with the morning shift work. It's quiet time until 3:30. The dogs need their naps and don't sleep well with a lot of activity in the kennels. Kelly comes up to me - she has to go. The person she came with has to leave. I thank her for her help. She then tells me she doesn't want to go. The dogs need her. Her little buddy (the sick dog) needs her. I promise her I'll keep an eye on them. She cries. I hug her. I cry too. Leaving all of these animals behind is going to be really hard for me too - I'm now starting to realize that. My last day is tomorrow.
Michelle and I are told to take a break after 3:00. We have been on for 10 hours solid, after a really long day yesterday. They are really concerned that tired workers make mistakes. We use the time to set up our tent. The volunteer tent hasn't been set back up yet, but the winds have died down enough that we can set up our little tent. We shower. Around 4:30 I go and check on my sick puppy. She is gone. The vets have come and gotten her. That's good - she needed the individual attention. I'll head over to the vet area tomorrow and check on her. The two of us, along with Abby, decide to head to town to get dinner. Melissa stays back to shower. She had a hard time today. After trying to stay relatively detached from all of the dogs she knew she wouldn't be able to take home, her buckskin male finally got to her. She knew she'd have to leave him behind and needed some time alone.
They've been doing a great job of feeding us - but getting away would be nice. It's a Sunday night, and every restaurant in town is overflowing. It's a 25 minute wait at Chilis. The drive-through lines at Wendy's and McDonalds are huge. The population of Gonzales has nearly doubled in the last 3 weeks. Every hotel is full. One hotel has a sign on the door - No Vacancy until 12/30. There are thousands of evacuees from New Orleans staying in the city. Some are in area hotels. The area YMCA and 4-H building adjoining our barns has also been turned into a temporary shelter. There are also hundreds of volunteers in town on a regular basis trying to help out at Lamar-Dixon. Some may never go back. It's a strange feeling.
After dinner at Taco Bell (who, due to shipping problem, was out of beef), we head back to Lamar-Dixon. We talk to some of the other volunteers. I check in the vet area for my puppy, I can't find her, but it's a busy time, so I'll follow up tomorrow. The crews that went into the city have come back with their animals and are checking them in. We watch in-take for a while. Many of them are in pretty bad shape, but they'll be much better taken care of here. It's getting late. Off to bed. It's an early morning again tomorrow.
Day 6 - our Final Day
Monday, Sept 26 - up and at 'em early again. 6:30. Michelle and I are again asked to be assistant barn managers. I immediately resign my position today. Overnight, I decided that I want to spend my last day here with the animals. Being a manager doesn't allow me to walk the dogs. I can be middle management at home, so I step down.
Per my new routine, I get out the kennel trained dogs first - I know who they are now. We run across the parking lot to the dog-walk area. They do their thing, we come back. I rave about how great of a job they do. Being kennel trained will help make them more adoptable. On our walk back, a beautiful brindle Pit jumps up and gives me a huge bear hug (ok, Pit Bull hug). He wraps his front paws all the way around my waist. Some other volunteer shoots a photo of it. If you were that guy outside Barn 2, please contact me, I'd love to have that picture. I can't believe how loving these animals are after all they've been through. This dog was my favorite. Another favorite of mine was a beautiful small, red Pit. He was VERY fun. Energetic. I don't think he's adoptable. Pretty dog aggressive. Probably bred to fight. But he and I became buds over the course of 3 days in Barn 2. We go for a walk too. We then go through our usual routine. I run with as many of the dogs as I can.
Around lunchtime, my partner in dog cleaning, Rick, had some friends come by and see if he wanted to get lunch (provided by HSUS). Rick declines. "We're almost done." They insist that they may run out of food. Rick pipes back with a smile, "These dogs need food too, this is what I came down here to do." I can't mention enough how impressed I was with the majority of the volunteers.
After my shift, I go to look for my sick puppy that I'm keeping an eye on for Kelly. I can't find her anywhere in the ER area. As it turns out, the dog was relocated to LSU's Veterinary school for further care. I don't know if the pup will make it, but I at least know that if she doesn't make it, it wasn't because she didn't get the care she needed. I'm at least happy about that. Being sick in the kennels with 1200 other dogs is no way to get individual care.
About this time Melissa and Abby are over in Barn 5, packing the van and making final preparations to leave Gonzales. The weather sure is different than it was when we first arrived -the refreshing breeze and overcast cloud filter has been replaced with a cooking sun and impossible humidity. Melissa was near the area where they do intake at night when she noticed what appeared to be a reunion. During our stay at Gonzales, we learned that over 6,000 animals had been processed at the makeshift animal shelter -and a little over 400 of those pets were reunited with their owners. So it's obvious that we did not get the opportunity to see very many reunions. Of the two we saw, one was obviously very pleasant -with a little boy bubbling with happiness at the sight of his dog. The other... well I just don't know. Some young men claimed that a young, rednose female was their dog, but they didn't have any photos for proof. And who would? They probably lost everything when their home was flooded. But when they took the dog out of her crate, it seemed as if she had no idea who they were. When asked if they were happy they get their dog back, they said "Yes, ma'am. When asked if she was left behind in their home when they fled from Katrina, they said "No Ma'am, she lives in the yard".
We get the car all loaded up and we're ready to go. We have found two dogs to rescue that we're bringing back. Neither dog is one of our favorites, but both need to be rescued and will be good fits for homes. They're good dogs. We named the female Nola - short for New Orleans, LA. The male we named Dixon, after the equestrian center he's called home for 3 weeks.
We say goodbye to the BadRap folks we have been working with the past few days, and goodbye to all of the loving little faces in Barn 5. It's tough. On our way out of the kennels, we make one last stop, by Barn 2. I have four pictures to take of Michelle and I's new four-legged friends. It's only been five days, but I sure got attached to them. Our plan is to drive through the night and arrive home the next day.
Day 7 - the drive Home
Tuesday, Sept 27 - okay, Nola is wimpering in the back. We cave, and bring her up front with us. She promptly crawls up on Abby's lap and spends basically the next 6 hours sleeping on her lap. It's quite possibly the cutest scene ever. Dixon continues to be a champ. He has already learned to kennel on demand, and is great on a lead. I wasn't the biggest fan of him at first, but he's really growing on me. We made a great choice. Choosing only two to save was one of the hardest decisions we've ever made.
We finally arrive home. We're tired. Content. Everything looks and feels so different, like we are looking at everything with a completely changed perspective. My dogs are glad to see us. I want nothing more than to be a good parent to my two dogs. They deserve it - and too many other animals I've just spent time with should have it.
Day 9 - Dreams
Wednesday, Sept 28 - it's morning. Two nights in a row I've woken up in the middle of the night with that half-awake feeling that I should be walking the dogs. I see their faces. It makes me sad. There are so many left down there. Who knows what will become of them. I could have loved all of them. It's pretty crazy.
Melissa just called. Nola passed away. She was sick - we knew that. But she had complications during surgery. Tears form. We had a chance to save two. Only two. And two days later, it's down to one. And she was so sweet. I pictured her snuggled up on Abby's lap. Licking my chin. She deserved better than this. The only comfort I have is that this poor dog, who knew little about being loved in the first few years of her life, at least was loved by four people for a week before she died. She'll be missed. And in the end, she has a legacy. I guess that's something.
It's amazing to me how attached I became to that dog in 5 days. Five. I find it amazing that somehow she was left behind by her owner. I can't even imagine having to make that decision. It angers me. It saddens me. What is wrong with people?! I'm going to miss that dog.
So when you ask, "how was it?" pardon me if I keep in short -- or maybe run too long in an explanation. There's no short way to sum up the emotion, and the experience of being there.