Katrina Report - October 7, 2005

Judy Carman, M.A.

            I just returned from the New Orleans area and, for anyone interested, I’ve put together a little report.  I’ll just cover what I was involved in since I imagine you all have been inundated with email updates and news reports and probably know more about the situation than I do. 

            Beginning early in September, I contacted a number of groups about volunteering to help with the animal rescues.  My feeling was that I was in a unique and very fortunate position because my kids are grown, and my husband was willing to take care of the business without me for a couple of weeks.  Plus I had had some emergency animal rescue training and I felt, as so many of us did, that I just had to do something.  We see this kind of thing in other countries, but generally it’s too far for the average, untrained person to go.  But this was close to home, and I figured they could use a lot of untrained people as long as we were willing to do whatever was needed.  This included but was not limited to oodles of poop scooping.

            So several members of Animal Outreach of Kansas and I left several weeks ago, along with a gentleman who drove his big truck loaded down with about 100 dog crates.  Thanks to his wife who rounded up all the crates and misc stuff donated by local pet stores. 

            We were repeatedly told by various groups that we were not needed.  It seems there was a lot of confusion among the groups about volunteers.  Even after we got there, people were being told they weren’t needed when the need was actually quite desperate and still is.  In fact, if you can go now, you are needed. 

            The entities involved in organizing the rescue efforts were absolutely overwhelmed with responsibilities, decisions, choices, etc. for which none of them were prepared or equipped.  Confusion reigned continually and decisions and protocols changed from day to day or even minute by minute.  There was no time to meet with volunteers and most decisions were just made on the spur of the moment.  Some policies I’m quite sure we never even knew about.  I think that once the emergency “surge” is past there will be a lot of work done among these groups to put together more workable plans should a disaster of this magnitude take place again.  I feel certain that there were many people who wanted to come who were told they were not needed and so stayed home.  The animals needed them and still do.

            I spent part of my time at Lamar Dixon Expo in Gonzales and part at Louisiana State University Coliseum.  Both these places are set up like a county fairground with arenas for horse shows, auctions, 4-H shows, etc. and barns with stalls for animals.  It was quite ironic that these places are so often used to display animals that are going to be killed for food and yet, in this time of emergency, were being used to save the lives of animals.  It will surely help the karma of these places at least for now. 

            Anyway, at LSU many of the dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, and other animals were rescued and their guardians unknown, while others were brought in by displaced people who were staying in shelters or other places where they could not keep their animals with them.  There was Jezelle who had refused to leave her cats in her home.  Her car was underwater for days and water filled her streets.  Every day she walked through knee to waist deep water to feed animals who had been left behind in her neighborhood.  One day, she asked for a ride on a boat to run an errand.  They picked her up, assuring her they would deliver her to her destination.  Instead, once she was aboard, they told her she was going with the group of people on the boat to the airport to be flown out of state.  She tried to jump off the boat into the water, but they restrained her.  She and the other people on the boat were then herded onto a plane—destination unknown—and off they flew.  Fortunately for her, she had friends who were able to rescue her where she landed, somewhere in Texas I think.  The rest of the folks were taken to a shelter.  She had enough resources (money) to return home, get her cats, and bring them to the LSU shelter. 

            Another woman, Iris, stayed in her house for two weeks before the National Guard came along.  During that time, her entire first floor and that of all her neighbors was underwater.  She stayed on the second floor with her dogs and many neighbors’ dogs whom she rescued with a little boat.  Dogs and cats who would not come with her in the boat got fed by her every day.  Mind you, this is a woman who did not know how to swim but braved the water every day anyway to keep the animals fed. 

            When the Guard came after the water receeded, she refused to leave the animals, saying to them, “If you came to rescue me, aren’t you a little late?”  She didn’t care much for their “martial law” if it wasn’t going to include rescuing the animals, so she told them to leave and not come back.  They did return the next day, but they were so impressed with her boldness, they brought a truck to carry all the animals in her home (26 altogether I think).  They brought the animals to LSU, and Iris was there every day caring for those dogs. 

            There are so many stories to tell.  I met Tweety Bird’s person one day when she came to walk her.  She told me that she had been trapped in her house in chest deep water for three days, and Tweety Bird was right there with her.  They were rescued together, as, even then, she would not leave without her dog. 

            Taking care of the animals at LSU consisted of long days of feeding, watering, poop scooping, and hopefully walking the dogs if there was time.  It was always about 105 degrees (according to the heat index), and the dust in the barn was hard on dogs and volunteers alike.  The first few days, every dog made me cry.  You think about what they’ve been through and how frightened and confused they must feel.  Some of them wanted more than anything to just rest their heads in my hands, just to feel a comforting touch.  Their sad eyes were enough to make me want to take them all and just hold them all night long.  It especially got to me when I saw dogs of the same breed as my granddogs and cats like my grandcat Chippy and like Dini, and, of course, other animals I’ve known.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of this happening to any of them. 

            After a few days, I didn’t cry as much.  I tried to concentrate on helping them and being strong for them, especially taking them for walks.  There were two ducks, two chickens, and a pot-bellied pig that we cared for as well.  The chickens got to go home while I was still there, and I met the guardian of one of the ducks.  When she showed up, Mack the duck, was so excited, he was just hopping.  He followed her everywhere and obviously loved her.  She planned to come back for him in two days.  I trust that she did.     

            At Lamar Dixon Expo Center, the focus was more on rescuing animals in the New Orleans area and then bringing them back to the Center.  Even though nearly four weeks had passed, animals were still being found trapped in houses and alive.  Some nights rescuers were bringing in as many as 300 to 400 animals.  Veterinarians and others would stay up as long as it took to photograph, treat, feed, and water these poor animals, many of whom were mere skeletons and almost too weak to walk.  Thousands of people had called in giving their addresses and begging to have their animals rescued.  These were top priority.  The other main project was leaving food and water at feeding stations around the city for animals that were loose.

            As we drove into New Orleans, we were stunned by the sights that greeted us.  Nothing can prepare you for such sights except maybe a war.  To get the feeling of it, just let your jaw drop and widen your eyes and shake your head from side to side.  As we drove through streets with no stop lights, signs covered with mud, cars overturned and caked with dirt, branches and trash littering the streets, power lines draped over fences and blowing in the wind, we were mostly speechless, except for an occasional “No words could ever describe this.”  The feeling of sadness, really mournfulness, was overwhelming as we pondered the unfathomable loss for so many. 

            Farther south in the St Bernard parish which was hit even harder, we saw boats upside down on the road, boats on top of houses and fences, cars on top of cars, and cars upended in the mud.  One house was sitting in the middle of a street.  When we broke into these houses to search for animals, the smell was absolutely unbreathable.  Ceilings had collapsed.  The floors were buckled and covered with sheetrock, insulation, and thick, stench-filled mud.  Any remaining walls were covered with mold and mildew, and furniture and clothing were as well.  Fenced yards were like big baskets that had been filled with mud, lumber, bushes, and trash. 

            We were asked to go to one particular address where the owners said they hoped their dog was in the yard.  When we got to the house, we headed toward the yard and what we saw then brought us all to uncontrollable tears.  There before us was a once beautiful dog hanging by her collar, dead on the gate.  She had come so close to freedom.  Her paws were still stuck in the wire squares of the fence as she tried in vain to lift herself over the gate.  None of us will ever forget the sight of her.  She is a symbol to me of the sacred responsibility we humans have to these innocent animals whom we have made so dependent upon us.  Freed from the fence she might have had a chance.  Taken along as a family member, she would have either survived or perished with her loved ones.  But left behind, collared and fenced, with no food or water, her chances were reduced to zero. 

            We don’t know the whole story here.  I heard many stories of people who wanted to take their animals but could not.  Most people were not expecting any flooding and thought they would be returning home in a day or two.  On the way home, I stopped in Arkansas for gas.  I still had “Animal rescue” written on my vehicle.  A woman came up to me and thanked me for helping rescue animals and told me that her brother had been taken to the hospital before the hurricane and then airlifted from there to a hospital out of harm’s way.  His cat was left behind, and they have not found her yet. 

            There will be a lot of blaming after Katrina and Rita.  So much sadness and pain, and people need to vent their anger—victims and rescuers alike.  I hope to see us channel this anger and frustration into creating realistic and effective disaster plans that include all members of affected families—animals and people alike—and that can organize volunteers in a way that maximizes their skills and willingness to help. 

            One FEMA worker with whom I spoke said she expected great improvement to take place after this and that that would be one of the blessings that would come out of this multiple tragedy.  I just want to say also that another blessing was the huge outpouring of love and assistance provided by volunteers from all over the country.  There were thousands, I’d say probably 80% women, many veterinarians who took time away from their practices to work unbelievable hours, and just a whole lot of people with big hearts.  I am also aware that there were thousands more, including many of you, who wanted to help but were unable to due to children, jobs, etc. but were there in spirit.  I heard the footsteps of Love walking everywhere. 

© Judy Carman, 2005

Judy Carman, M.A. is an activist for animal rights, peace and justice, and environmental protection. She is the author of Born to Be Blessed: Seven Keys to Joyful Living, and her new book Peace to All Beings won the Spirituality and Health award as one of the best spiritual books of 2003. She is co-founder of Animal Outreach of Kansas and of the Universal Prayer Circle for Animals.

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