August 30, 2015

Katrina remembrance....

I wanted to post this yesterday, since yesterday was the actual anniversary of Katrina, but oddly enough, we had a windstorm and had no power/internet...anyway, I wanted to post my experience of Katrina, to honor the victims and the memory of what happened...I've posted this before, it was written shortly after I got back from doing animal rescue about  3-4 weeks after Katrina hit, and barely edited...really long, but just wanted to put it into the universe again, so as not to forget...


We started sort of backwards. We arrived in the New Orleans airport and had to drive the hour and a half out of the devastation, into Gonzales (just out of Baton Rouge), where the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) rescue facility was located. Flying in, we couldn’t see much—we did see one of the bridges that had buckled, and lots of tarps on roofs, but apart from that, it was difficult to discern the severity of the destruction from the plane window. The plane was full of contractors and rescue workers (who else would be going into New Orleans right after the hurricane?), but when we landed, we were lucky enough to spot a girl wearing a PETA shirt, who let us hitch a ride in the PETA van headed towards Gonzales, once we expressed our intention to volunteer with animal rescue. We later found out this saved us about $150 a piece in cab fare—the price gouging was horrendous...but who can blame the drivers--what other chance have they got after their town, and probably their homes were destroyed?

PETA had some business to conduct in New Orleans, so we made a stop there first, and spent a bit of time right near the Superdome and the overpass where thousands were stranded. Getting straight off the plane after a sleepless red-eye flight, only to be thrust into a place where so much suffering had occurred made me numb. I was in shock, because all of the things that I had been watching on the news for so many days were real—each leftover shoe, doll, or water bottle amidst the piles of trash that lay scattered everywhere, belonged to someone who had been through something that I knew I could not begin to even imagine.

We waited in the van until the PETA volunteers were done doing whatever it was they were doing, and then headed to the rescue facility.  As we drove away, we were immersed in the total destruction in New Orleans—homes with entire walls missing, but the furniture perfectly in place, looking more like dioramas than actual places people lived; billboards warped and twisted, bent down parallel to the ground; storage facilities destroyed, with priceless heirlooms and papers strewn around parking lots where the cars were piled atop each other like building blocks.  But as the miles passed, before my brain had time to even start processing these images, they dissolved into the pristine-looking marshes along the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain towards Gonzales.

Gonzales was untouched. Taco Bell and Starbucks were fully functional (and frequented by the HSUS volunteers needing a break) and gas at Shell was not only up and running, but dirt cheap--only $2.25. But the HSUS makeshift shelter was a whole different story. Driving up, the barking of the dogs was audible for blocks. When we stepped out of the car, the heat nearly knocked us over, and the humidity was thicker than anything I have ever experienced (and I’m from Texas). Dozens of volunteers were racing around, dripping with sweat, and dutifully wearing the rubber gloves, despite the discomfort of rubber gloves in 97 degree heat (we were repeatedly cautioned not to touch any of the animals with our skin, given their exposure to the toxic water). The shelter consisted of several barns, with stalls full of wire dog crates, which stank of feces, as there were not sufficient volunteers to walk the dogs more than once a day, and few could hold that long.

When my friend and I checked in, we were assigned to dog walking, but were told we could first take a tour of the area, to get acquainted with it, and it quickly became evident that our help was much less needed walking dogs than in the vet area. This was made apparent to us, by the fact that as soon as we neared the vet area, we were frantically summoned to work by a FEMA vet, who had us reorganizing the intake area, and taking temperatures of ill animals. We were then told to walk an older dog who was suffering from heat stroke, but as soon as we got him out of his cage, he was overtaken by the heat, and we raced to find someone who could help. Fortunately, the Louisiana SPCA had an RV, with A/C, and welcomed him inside.  We raced back to the veterinary area to obtain his records--with so many animals, keeping track of them was essential--and after a bit of chaos trying to find our way back to the RV, he was reunited with his paperwork, and when we peeked in on him, thankfully, he was doing just fine.

Although the Humane Society shelter in Gonzales was terribly understaffed, my friend and I had both done enough rescue to know that there was probably more work that needed to be done “in the field."  We agreed that we wanted to get out and do rescue, or some sort of other work because, though understaffed, Lamar-Dixon was generally under control--pets were contained, vets were handy for emergencies, so hopefully all the animals that made it there had at least the bare necessities for survival, unlike animals still out on the streets or locked in houses, most of whom had gone weeks without being fed or having access to any obvious clean water source--those were the animals we urgently wanted to get to.  Fortunately, a vet with the HSUS had seen us working and could tell that we both had animal rescue experience, and he seemed to have read our minds. He asked if we were interested in getting out into the community and told us to attend a meeting later that evening if we were. We spent the rest of the day cleaning cat cages and then headed to the meeting.

We were told that the Navy had established a makeshift shelter in St. Bernard's Parish--one of the hardest-hit areas.  There were about 200 dogs and only four Navy guys trying to take care of them; they were in desperate need of help. The HSUS wanted to send out 10 people for 4 days. We decided it was perfect and signed up. We worked a bit longer, then headed in—though we only worked about 12 hours that day, neither of us had slept at all the previous night, and the heat was particularly unbearable the first day (I nearly passed out several times—literally), and we knew we had a very big few days ahead of us. (Neither of us actually ended up sleeping, though, incidentally—you just can’t, because, though your body is completely exhausted, you feel a constant guilt for not helping—and the constant barking of the desperate dogs doesn’t help).

The next morning, 6am, we headed for St. Bernard, right next to New Orleans, adjacent to Lake Pontchatrain.  There was a surprisingly large amount of traffic heading towards New Orleans, but after exiting the freeway it was all gone—no one could be seen in any direction; everything was frozen. The stench immediately penetrated the car and was almost unbearable, even with no windows open. It smelled of toxic chemicals, oil, death, mold, feces—everything horrible that you can imagine, all mixed together. Everything was destroyed—none of the images on television could begin to convey the magnitude and scope of destruction. Parking lots were all empty of cars and full of the contents of the recently-flooded stores they belonged to. Flood lines, along with oil lines (the refinery in St. Bernard unleashed a large oil spill in the area) marked all the buildings, sometimes up near rooftops. And there was simply no one around (which, incidentally, made the 4 Gator Aids I drank before leaving—hoping to avoid the dehydration that struck me the previous day, not thinking about the fact that I was going to spend an hour and a half in an air-conditioned car—all the more painful, since there was nowhere to stop…fortunately, a National Guard checkpoint had a port-a-potty…as shallow mentioning this sounds, I do, only because this is what your mind clings to, in the midst of such devastation, because the horror is just too much to comprehend.). We knew when we were getting close because, once again, we could hear the dogs barking from what seemed like a half a mile away. But we had no idea of just how bad it would be.

Pulling into the parking area of what had been dubbed Camp Lucky, there was a 2’ tall plastic light-up Jesus and several other nativity statutes, survivors of the flood, strewn about, which provided a momentary distraction from what we were about to encounter. Stepping out of the car, even was we braced for the heat and stench, they were unbearable (even though it was only 7:30 am). Everything there was covered in this toxic sludge, the remnants of the toxic water that had once covered the area. There was no running water, but there was a military water truck which roared, and combined with the hundreds of dogs barking, made it impossible to hear anyone without shouting, and even then, everyone needed to repeat themselves. Ordinarily, just standing in this environment would be too much to take but we were set to do hard physical labor, and the animals—they were living this.

Inside the barn, there were 6 rows of cages with about 250 large dogs and 30 or so cats. The building was collapsing and the cages were completely full of feces—with only 4 men running the place, they were simply retrieving the animals and caging them; they had no time to tend to them once they were captured. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed around by the hundreds and the floor was littered with the flattened-out, water-decomposed, hardly recognizable bodies of small wild animals that had died there—in one place, in the dog-walking area, there was a mother opossum and several babies, all within several yards of one another…such horror.

We were to walk the dogs, bring them back, get their paperwork done, and try to find a cage that had been cleaned to put them back into. This was rare, though—there were not enough people to walk the dogs, let alone clean cages as well, so after a several minute walk, the dogs were forced back into the dirty cages where they had spent days. In spite of this, the dogs were AMAZING. Even as avid of an animal person as I am, I was shocked at how unbelievably grateful they ALL were. None of them were aggressive at all—even though about 2/3 of them were pitties, many were clearly previous fighters—they were all so full of love and affection, just wanting someone to pet them and give them some attention. Even when they were being shoved back into their filthy cages, they did not bite; they just looked up with disappointed, bewildered eyes. They were all covered in the toxic sludge. Many of them had severe chemical burns all over their bodies. Most were emaciated, though not as badly as I would have expected, primarily because the military had been leaving food and water out in many areas.
The military was amazing. They took orders from us and were so genuinely concerned about the animals well-being—many of them rescuing dogs themselves and putting their names on the dogs' papers, as potential adopters, if the real family could not be found. The dogs that were the worst off were the ones that had come from inside homes or had been chained to the porch, because they had gone weeks without food and with no way to escape to try to find it. Cats were not faring as well as the dogs. The heat was much harder on them, and, being cats, they did not handle the stress as well. New animals were streaming in constantly—there were animals EVERYWHERE, even three weeks into the disaster, there were hundreds of dogs running in the streets, stuck on roofs, everywhere. My friends and I rescued three dogs while walking to the shelter the following morning, without even trying to, because they were simply everywhere.

A day or two into our trip, we found out that the shelter was not started by the Navy, as we had originally heard, but by a man we met who had lost everything, and spent 8 hours on his father-in-law’s roof, after going to his house to try to rescue him (his father-in-law, and the rest of his family, were all fine, thankfully). This totally unassuming man could not stand seeing all of the dogs loose, so he recruited three of his friends to build makeshift kennels, and catch as many dogs as they could. Unbelievable, with all that this man had been through, that he had the kindness and wherewithal to  be able to do this. It is so trite, but so true—these situations really do reveal the true heroes among us. Amazing.


Walking down the streets was indescribable. There was no one, anywhere. There was no wildlife. The first birds returned the day we left. There was no electricity, no sounds of refrigerators or air-conditioners. No cars. No movement. There was just total silence—museum silence—and the echo of my footsteps as I walked down these streets where people used to live. Periodically, a person would emerge out of nowhere, walking aimlessly, with a dazed look on his face.  Residents were still in such shock that most of them could only repeat a few words—one man was stuck on “I’m 48—I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve lived here my whole life.” There was nothing to say to them; all you could do was offer a look of compassion, and some entirely useless well-wish. Then they passed by, and it was back to nothing. Sometimes, a military convoy of 40 humvees, full of marines with huge machine guns would come barrelling through.  Then nothing again.  There was complete lawlessness. It is impossible to convey, but being there, there was just a sense that all of these basic, intuitive things we take for granted—all of these things that our society rests upon, were gone, totally gone, instantly with the storm.

The situation in the barns was so overwhelming, it was simply impossible to take breaks—despite the miserable conditions and the blisters covering everyone’s feet. Breaks occurred at odd moments, 2 minute intervals every couple of hours, when the situations presented themselves with a spot to sit or kneel, or a bottle of water appeared. But immediately after sitting, the guilt set in, and I found myself walking another dog, cleaning another cage. The feeling of total helplessness was inescapable, so my focus shifted to little things, in order to maintain sanity (though tears were present at all times—just when it seemed impossible to cry any more, they reappeared)…little things like making sure a certain dog got an extra-thorough bath; bringing a bag of ice to a particular kitten in extreme agony. The small things that gave me a sense that my presence was helping someone, even though there was nothing that could be done about the majority of the suffering.  I found a particularly emaciated pitty, and worked diligently to make sure she received adequate veterinary attention I gave her fluids, as she patiently stood on the vet table, and gave me puppy-kisses (I never got a good picture of her, unfortunately).

We worked late into the night, in the pitch-black, lit only by small flashlights. We were lucky enough to be allowed to sleep on the navy boat, the USS Shreveport, complete with showers—thank God. One could go without sleep—it was impossible to sleep anyway, and even it came, it would only have been for 3 or 4 hours before it was time to return to work—but not without a shower. Between the toxic sludge and the sweat from the heat, it was difficult to even continue working near the end of the day due to my own filth.

The next few days were much the same, but the tasks had shifted. Instead of just maintaining the shelter and rescuing new animals, FEMA had found a shelter in Los Angeles that was willing to take up to 200 animals (which were quickly replaced with the animals being rescued), and the military (who had taken a great interest in this shelter), had found us a better location across town—not nearly as badly flooded, and with concrete, rather than dirt floors, and running water. So the goal now was to transfer all of the animals to ship-able crates, and onto the military trucks--some to be evacuated, others to be transferred to the better shelter.

Nearing the end of the last day at Camp Lucky I, during a rare sit-down break, after the second-to-last group of animals had been taken to Camp Lucky II, word came that the levees had breached again, and that we were all going to have to evacuate the next day, by 4pm, and the navy ship, with the military, were shipping out that morning at 6am—meaning we would have no trucks to get the hundreds of animals at Camp Lucky II out, and that the thousands of animals that had yet to be rescued, and that we saw every day running around, were going to endure another flood. At just this moment, someone yelled at the other end of the barn, that a Chihuahua had gotten loose. I leaped from my chair, and sprinted around the barn—where the energy to do that came from, I don’t know; I had certainly used up my adrenaline quota for the day already. Everyone else was chasing the dog the other way, towards me, so when he saw me, he turned, and froze…he then cautiously approached one of the other girls, and she grabbed him, and he bit her. She held on, though, and he made it just fine.
When I got back to the barn, I just couldn’t take it anymore; I completely broke down. All of these was bad enough what was going to happen to all of the ones we hadn’t caught, but with all of the ones that we had caught and cared for—no one had any idea how we were going to get them out without the military trucks, and after all this, all they have been through, we just couldn’t release them back out into the imminent flood...but what were we going to do? Obviously, I wasn't involved in planning logistics, and there was nothing I could do, but the whole thing was just so awful; I just couldn't take it. The other volunteers comforted me; the camaraderie there was indescribable—those of us who stayed at Camp Lucky (several people couldn’t handle it and left on the first day) bonded beyond words.


The next morning, our last morning at 5am, we began at Camp Lucky II, the new shelter we had transferred the animals to the day before.  We awakened to the most wonderful news possible: to everyone’s great relief, the travel arrangements had been worked out, and the animals were all to be shipped out, by 4pm, with vehicles sent from the Humane Society's shelter in Gonzales. Some were sent to San Antonio, some to Florida, the rest to the temporary holding in Gonzales—but they would all survive.
On our way out, we passed several groups of dogs roaming the streets, and a small tuxedo cat, with a blue collar, who crossed in front of us. There was nothing we could do about them.

Back at Gonzales, we decided to just take the rest of the day off. Though we wanted to help, the HSUS shelter was a luxury resort compared to where we had been, and our week of hard labor had rendered us too exhausted to be of use at that point anyway, so we ate and relaxed for a couple of hours, and then headed for bed.

The next day, of course, we agreed that our energy level was back up, and we could have stayed another week, easily, which made it that much more difficult to leave. We cried most of the plane ride home, and it has been terribly difficult to re-connect to things up here. All of us have had insomnia, nightmares, and a constant feeling of still being in a disaster area.  It is impossible not to feel guilty for not being there longer, or doing more. Even now, weeks later, I cannot think of anything other than the animals we left, and of all of the suffering and fear…I don’t think it will ever leave me.