Over the past couple of weeks, I've taken the moment on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast to look back at what it was like to be there in the weeks that followed, as well as the things that stick in my mind 10 years later from the week we were there helping the animals.
While the devastation to the communities in the Gulf Coast was obvious, and the impact to both human and animal lives was critical, in the months and years that have followed, some positive changes have resulted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The first and most obvious impact was the passage of the Pets Evacuation & Transportation Standards Act -- or better known as the PETS Act.
According to many reports, nearly half of the people who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to weather the storm stayed because of their pets. Pets weren't allowed on evacuation buses, and either people were forced to leave their pets behind (which many did) or stay behind with their pets (which many also did).
The aftermath of the decision to not include pets in evacuation efforts was extremely costly -- many people who stayed behind with their pets died. Many others needed rescue. Pets that were left behind ended up being left for weeks because people were unable to come back to their homes -- leading to one of the largest animal rescue efforts in history.
Stories from the Gulf area about people and their pets were heartbreaking. One story that emerged was about Morgan LaFaye, who stayed with his one year old, Apricot-colored poodle name Miss Morgan. LaFaye, a military veteran, was in a wheel chair after having lost both of his legs to diabetes but when his home began filling with water, he put his dog on the roof of his house and held onto a nearby tree for 14 hours weathering the storm. When the Coast Guard arrived, they rescued LaFaye, but refused to help Miss Morgan (Miss Morgan and LaFaye were reunited later after Miss Morgan spent 12 days on that rooftop).
Another story really hit home when images emerged of a 9 year old boy crying because he was not allowed to take his little white dog, Snowball. The story of Snowball became the iconic story of the people and their pets that were separated from the evacuation efforts.
"The story of a young boy who was so distraught at having to leave his dog, Snowball, when he boarded an evacuation bus became emblematic of the disconnect between how regular folks defined their family and how state and federal agencies defined a family." -- Francis Battista, Best Friends Animal Society in an article on CNN.
Indeed, according to a 2011 Harris Poll, 91% of pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family.
In the months following the Hurricane Katrina, public officials began to recognized the impact of pets as part of the family with the creation of the PETS Act. The PETS Act requires that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must accommodate pets and service animals in their emergency evacuation plans.
I hope that the PETS Act is not needed again in this country -- and certainly not on as large of a scale as would have been required by Hurricane Katrina. But in so many ways, the PETS Act formalized the long-running trend in this country that pets are bonded to their owners like family -- and it is a bond that governments officials, and animal welfare activists should strive to not break apart.
Up next: Hurricane Katrina and Pit Bulls