The memory is an interesting thing. It doesn't remember everything fully. Or always correctly. And often, the events that have happened since the memory creates a lens that molds and shapes that memory into something else entirely.
And yet, memories are often very important because in so many ways they define us -- who we are, and what we've become.
All of the 10-year anniversary specials about Hurricane Katrina have me looking back at my time in Gonzales following the hurricane a lot of memories come back. Some are foggy, and some forever emblazed in my memory. And most are better defined by how the memory made me feel than what actually happened.
In 2006, I was a newby to animal welfare. I had adopted a couple of dogs. I had helped out with a couple of adoption events for our local rescue. But I wasn't someone highly involved.
I, like most Americans, watched the devastation on the news. Seeing people starving, dying in the New Orleans Convention Center hit me particularly hard, as just two months prior I was at a convention there and that same hotel lobby was full of fun and networking at our event.
One night shortly after Katrina hit,our friend Melissa called us. She had a friend that was boots on the ground helping after Katrina and that they needed more hands, more help, caring for the animals. We weren't really needed to go into the city on boats to save animals from their situation (although we were certainly welcome to help), they just needed people who weren't scared of the dogs, most of which were pit bulls, to help care for the ones at the temporary shelter.
While I would not have considered myself an expert handler at the time, I certainly wasn't scared of pit bulls -- and at my wife Michelle's urging, four of us packed up and headed south.
My first real memory of the trip is that I remember waking up when we stopped for gas somewhere in southern Mississippi. The entire gas station was covered -- and I mean COVERED - in boxelder bugs.Every single surface was covered. Is this because of the hurricane? Or because of the nearby pine forests? I still don't know. But what are we getting ourselves into?
Just south of Baton Rouge the reality of what we were doing really sunk in. We had been hearing about the impending approach to Hurricane Rita and people were not going back to New Orleans and more people were leaving. However, on our drive from Baton Rouge, everyone was heading North. It was bumper-to-bumper, including a lot of utility trucks that had come down to help restore power after Katrina. It seemed that everyone was heading away from New Orleans. Except us.
We pulled into the shelter set up at Lamar Dixon in Gonzalez. They were going to begin loading dogs, in kennels, into the back of a semi to take them to a nearby prison program so they would be safely out of the temporary shelter when the next storm hit. I hope that that is where those dogs went.
I remember meeting the dogs the first day. They weren't all pit bulls, but probably 80% of them were. I took them out of the kennels and took them for a quick run to a fenced in area designated for potty breaks. I ran with them a lot -- for about 15 hours or so every day while we were there.
The dogs themselves -- were amazing. I couldn't believe how good all of the dogs were. They were happy to see you every time you came by. They loved to play and the interaction. Many were crate trained. These were clearly people's pets. Would they ever be able to find their people?
Hurricane Rita was coming. I had always thought of hurricanes as one big storm. However, I learned that on the outskirts of hurricanes there end up usually being hundreds of smaller tornadoes that emerge from the storm. We have to stop our work to take shelter due to some of the tornadoes on the front end of the storm. A lot of people were freaking out over the tornadoes. I'm less concerned at this point. I guess being from the Midwest gives me that advantage - -we call this May & June in Kansas City.
Finally, the heart of the storm is near and we are told to evacuate. They have buses taking people to a couple of shelters -- people can also drive themselves to a church that has opened itself up for people. "Don't get on the bus -- go to the church" someone tells me. "You don't want to lose control of when you can and can't come back." Sound advice it seems, so we go to the church.
For nearly 24 hours we stayed at the church where they had cots set up. We were on the main floor of the church - they don't build basements much in New Orleans because they'd always flood. That's different than in KC.
I get a phone call from a co-worker.
"You still there?" Yes, yes of course.
"There's another hurricane coming." Yes. We've taken cover. We're just waiting out the storm.
"Be safe. And if you need help, call, we'll send the company plane to get you, just don't get stuck down there. If you need help, call." We have a car and a full tank of gas. We'll be ok. But what are they saying on the news? How bad is this hurricane? What are we in for?
We met a lot of people - and had a lot of time to talk to them at the church. Overall, the people that came to Louisiana following the hurricane were amazing. They were genuine. People came from around the country to help. Some hopped on planes, or in their cars, and came thousands of miles by themselves to help out. I'm sure I would not have come if I had come by myself. We met a lot of great people on this trip -- most of whom I haven't ever seen or spoken to again. If only social media had existed in 2006.
I woke up the next day and most of the storm had passed. Others were asleep. We hadn't been given the all clear to leave yet, so I go outside. The storm had dropped a lot of water. And there were a lot of downed tree branches. I just begin picking up downed branches. There was something eerily soothing about the clouds, the calm after the storm. No cars. No noise. I made a big pile of branches that the church would now have to deal with, but at least they didn't have to gather them up.
We finally get the ok to head back to Lamar Dixon. I remember the sense of urgency we felt in needing to get the dogs out, and fed. It was never really clear if anyone had been with them for the past 24 hours. There weren't very many of us at first, but gradually, people started coming back. How hard people worked was amazing.
Much of the rest of the time was spent with the dogs. We all began to grow connections to our favorites. I had a beautiful brindle pup with cropped ears that was super-high energy. Another that was a gold-colored brindle that almost looked like a she was tiger-striped. Melissa had a favorite that was a fawn pit bull with an unusual bark that sounded like a smoker's bark. Running dogs. Cleaning kennels. Repeat.
After the storm, more people started to come back into the city to try to reunite with their lost pets. People would wander up and down the isles looking for their pets. By this time, we had nearly 1,000 dogs on-site - and some people had already been to Tylertown or some of the other staging areas. It was devastating so see the looks on people's faces when they didn't find their pets.
Really, 1,000 pets here, and none were theirs? They were devastated. I can't imagine the feeling of leaving your pet behind thinking you'd be gone for a few days to realize it was weeks before you could came back. It would be hard to handle. And many people were heartbroken.
While the number of disappointments outnumbered the number of families that were reunited, I will never, ever, forget seeing the people reunite with their pets. Their excitement. Their joy. And dogs who seemed just as overjoyed.
It was moments like the one pictured here that made the gravity of the situation, and the heartbreak feel worth it.
We set up our tents to camp. Not nearly as comfortable as the large tent that was there before Rita came through. But there was privacy, so there was that. Although setting up in the dark can have some disadvantages -- beware of fire ants.
One night they ordered pizza for all of the workers. Papa Johns maybe? I can't remember. It didn't matter -- I'd never been so happy to see pizza in my life. People near me were complaining the pizza wasn't vegan. Really? I'm sure the number of vegan options here were limited before the area got ravaged by two hurricanes. Be grateful. I'm grateful that dinner is going to be more substantial than a granola bar.
Our time has ended. It seems like too soon. In some ways it feels like we've only been here a few hours, and in some ways it feels like we've been here for a month. In reality, it's been about 6 days and we're all due back at our office jobs.
We are going to bring back a couple of dogs for the rescue we're with. It's a tough choice. We have room for two pups -- and with 1,000 to choose from, how do you decide?
We pick our pups - we name them Nola and Dixon. We also go through and take note of some of our other favorites that we're going to try to get later. We say our goodbyes and head home.
It wasn't long after we left Gonzales that they started to break up the Lamar Dixon staging area. Dogs were shipped to various shelters and rescues across the country. Lamar Dixon was eventually closed to dogs and resuming its original purpose as a horse shelter.
We starting making attempts to track down some of the dogs who we'd bonded with. Some we were able to track to various shelters across the country. A few just seemed to disappear, as if they'd never existed.
Of the dogs that we tracked to individual shelters, all were put down by the shelter after their mandated hold period was up. Several shelters I know of made no attempt to adopt out the dogs they got from Katrina -- they simply held them until their hold was up, and then killed them.
I felt betrayed. How could so many people put in so much time in the conditions surrounding Katrina helping these dogs, only to have shelters simply kill them at their first opportunity? How does that happen? Some said it was because they were pit bulls and thus "unadoptable". Many of the dogs suffered from heart worms and may have been killed due to "health". Others, simply because the dogs were no longer profitable for the shelters and it was time to move on. For all of the good that happened down there, it's hard to let that feeling of betrayal go.
The system was broken. I knew the system was broken, but not like this. This wasn't just city shelters beyond capacity that couldn't help. Some of these shelters were private shelters -- and some were VERY well-funded shelters. I was stunned. And sad. While I'm sure a lot of these dogs were able to find great homes, including one of our dogs Dixon, many were not given that same opportunity.
In the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, much has changed. I think for as much as the Hurricane revealed how as a nation we responded poorly to the human crisis in the area, it also revealed gaping holes in the animal welfare side as well. Some of those gaps have been filled. Some are still being filled. But I think how we view pets as family has changed since Katrina. How we view pit bulls has changed since Katrina. And the responsibility shelters feel to save these animals has largely changed since Katrina. We're not there yet....but public opinion is forcing these changes for the better.
Our two dogs Dixon and Nola ended up with very different results. Nola died during her spay surgery. Dixon was adopted into a fantastic family and lived in Kansas City and Phoenix for 8 years before passing away due to kidney disease. He had a really great life.