HURRICANE KATRINA: 5 YEARS AFTER THE STORM
Lessons learned from the perseverance of animals and the power of the people that love them
By Kyra Kirkwood
The images peppered throughout nightly newscasts and across daily newspapers for weeks seared themselves into the public’s mind. Raging floodwaters. Boats, not cars, in the streets. Homeless people. And dogs, sitting on rooftops awaiting rescue or wandering through vacant neighborhoods in search of food.
So many, many more visuals poured out of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans five years ago this August. And the more heartbreaking ones of loss, destruction and desolation refused to fade away.
Talk of the reasons why Katrina proved to be the most destructive natural disaster in United States history, along with the pointed fingers of blame, raged for months after the levees broke and the city submerged. In the past half decade, much has been done to restore that corner of Louisiana to its former grandeur. Much is still left to be done, and some will never be finished.
But one thing is certain: Lessons were learned, especially in terms of animal welfare. Katrina may have been a cruel educator, but she did teach people, not just in New Orleans, but across the nation.
MAKE IT LAW
Perhaps the biggest message received on the edge of Katrina’s Category 3 forces was that governmental policy regarding pets must change. New laws were needed. Animals, no longer deemed disposable, were worthy of legislation that protected them in times of disasters. Dogs and their guardians needed to be kept together, for both of their sakes.
A poll conducted by the Fritz Institute in 2006 revealed that 44 percent of people did not evacuate for Katrina because they did not want to leave their pets. Only 18 percent did not evacuate because of relatives.
“It became apparent that the lack of a national policy on animal evacuation in a disaster of this magnitude was hindering the relief effort,” said Michael Markarian, chief operating officer for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, D.C. “The human rescue effort was being undermined by the absence of an animal rescue policy.”
During Katrina, many longtime New Orleanians wondered where their dogs would go if they left for an evacuation shelter. So they stayed put. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the last decisions made by some pet guardians before the levees snapped. If people weren’t killed by the floodwaters raging toward the city, they became stranded and in need of saving, making things even more difficult for rescuers.
“We learned that animals must have a place at the table when in comes to disaster planning and response,” said Gloria Dauphin, assistant to the CEO at the Louisiana SPCA (LA/SPCA). “We learned that saving pets [means] saving people.”
When left on their own, dogs ran rampant in the city, lost and afraid as they struggled to stay alive in a place where survival became almost impossible. Rescuers assisting both animals and humans spent countless weeks in 100-plus heat, searching, saving and recovering in this extensive rescue operation.
Even when able to vacate submerged homes on their own and seek out the safety of an evacuation shelter, people were told to leave their dogs on the street because they were not allowed on buses or in facilities. One such instance told to the HSUS involves a group of people rounding up about two dozen pets in an effort to save them, only to be told at gunpoint by the National Guard that the animals had to be left where they stood —in crates at an abandoned gas station — before any human rescue would commence.
“This is the type of problem that shouldn’t recur again,” said Markarian.
The federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act) of 2006 was born from this disaster. This groundbreaking law requires that local and state responding agencies include pets and service animals in disaster planning in order to qualify for federal funding. It amends the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act by requiring the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets prior to, during and following a major disaster or emergency.
In addition, 16 other states across the country launched local laws to further protect pets in times of disaster. California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana and New York were just a few who made it easier and safer for pets during emergencies.
“The HSUS pressed federal and state lawmakers for new public policies that would help keep people and animals together in a time of crisis,” said Markarian.
When Hurricane Gustav struck Louisiana in 2008, pet guardians who were unable to self-evacuate took part in the country’s first-ever City Assisted Evacuation Plan (CAEP) that included pre-planning and transport for people and their pets. The LA/SPCA was the designated agency to coordinate with city, state and national animal groups to implement the plan.
“Pets were, for the first time, a major priority in New Orleans for the evacuation process during Hurricane Gustav,” said Dauphin.
A PUBLIC AWAKENING
Another lesson Katrina taught us is that the bond uniting dogs and guardians is not just strong, but immeasurable. People refused to leave a life-threatening situation or take shelter in an evacuation center because of their dogs. If these creatures were so important to some, they deserved respect and protection.
“I learned that the dogs have a lot to teach us, if only we will listen more and recognize their true value,” said Jenny Pavlovic, author and Katrina rescue volunteer.
Some people fought incredibly daunting circumstances to stay alive in the days and weeks following Katrina, just to care for and love their dogs.
“When people lost everything, those who were not separated from the pets were sustained by the companionship of their pets,” said Dauphin.” It illustrated the sheer power of the human-animal bond.”
The dogs struggled to live, too, in what many animal professionals would have deemed an impossible situation before Katrina.
One who saw this first-hand was Jane Garrison, Los Angeles-based animal advocate. The HSUS requested her help immediately after Katrina hit. Garrison arrived at the heart of the disaster and spent 22 hours a day searching, saving and rescuing animals. Upwards of 15,000 animals were rescued after Katrina, with Garrison personally saving 2,000 with her own hands. So much of what she saw during her six weeks as a first responder is seared into her heart and soul. Mostly, though, what she remembers is the will to live that these animals had in the face of such tragedy. “They went through such extreme measures just to stay alive.,” said Garrison.
One such dog was Crowbar. During the endless search of destroyed and partially submerged homes, animal rescuers and volunteers heard a whimper. As the blistering heat beamed down, rescuers slogged through the sunken streets, looking for animals and listening for any signs of life trapped in the dark and moldy homes. When they heard this one whimper in particular, crews got to work for an hour breaking down a heavy, boarded-up door. Once inside, they saw a medium-sized dog in a wire kennel resting on top of the kitchen table. Water levels showed the flood, at its peak, reached halfway up the dog’s body as he stood trapped in his crate.
Once released, Crowbar couldn’t contain his joy, or his delayed fear, as he kissed, whimpered and shook in the rescuer’s arms. Although emotionally and physically shaken up, he had survived.
As did Bubbles. This dog was found alive after weeks trapped in a house without food or water. No one could figure out how he did it. Seven weeks he was left alone, fighting to live. He was skin and bones when rescued, but he was alive. His will to live kept him going, rescuers surmised, along with a possible drip or two of water from the tub spout.
Pavlovic was another early responder who volunteered to help the dogs and wound up witnessing miracles sprinkled among the tragedy. (From her experiences in New Orleans and the dog she met there that changed her life, Pavlovic wrote 8 State Hurricane Kate: The Journey and Legacy of a Katrina Cattle Dog.) Pavlovic arrived in Louisiana from Minnesota and immediately plunged into work at the makeshift animal shelter at a local fairground. One of her most memorable moments came when a man arrived at the shelter in search of the two dogs he’d been forced to leave behind in a boat with some food, water and a tarp to shade them.
“Miraculously, they had been rescued and kept together, and he found them both at [the shelter],” said Pavlovic. “I wish I’d had my camera handy when they were reunited. There was not a dry eye among us.”
Through her time there, Pavlovic learned that even just one person could make a difference. She arrived alone with only a drive to help. She banded with other volunteers sharing her mission and together they did make a difference.
“I realized that I could do so much more than I thought, and that the power of one can be significant,” she said.
As Pavlovic learned, Katrina taught us to care about others, and to act on it. She created the 8 State Kate Fund to provide financial relief for animals in desperate situations. Upwards of $5,000 has been donated to animals in need through this fund.
“So many people supported [my Katrina rescue dog] Kate and me when we needed help that I wanted to give something back,” she said. “The goal is to provide a helping hand at a critical time when an animal might not survive without the financial help.”
Garrison, too, agrees that every single person can make a lasting change, even if it’s only for one dog. “Do what you can to help,” she said. “Save one at a time.”
Seeing this tragedy unfold on the nightly news in their living rooms, people were touched to help like never before. Hundreds flew from all corners of the nation to Louisiana to assist animal rescuers in any way: walking dogs, feeding, cleaning them, searching for them and locating guardians.
In addition to caring for their own pets, people embraced the problems of all animals — not just pets — and made these creatures’ protection their own mission. People aren’t waiting for “someone else,” like the government, to step up and fix things. They caught the fever and continued stoking the fire of philanthropy across the board for years after Katrina.
“Our country had a cultural awakening about the plight of animals, and this heightened awareness has translated into further efforts to protect animals from cruelty and abuse,” said Markarian. “Since 2005, state legislatures have passed more than 500 new animal protection laws, including measures to crack down on dog fighting, puppy mills, factory farming and more.”
FOCUS ON PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
Perhaps the biggest lesson Katrina taught all pet guardians is that nothing trumps personal responsibility. Your dogs need to be microchipped, they need a disaster plan, and they need to be taken with you if you evacuate. Simple instructions, but so necessary.
“It wasn’t like that before,” said Garrison. “People are now aware that you shouldn’t leave your pets behind, and the authorities are encouraging you to take your pets with you [when you leave].”
Too many guardians left their pets at home alone during Katrina, some thinking they’d be gone for just a few hours before the all-clear whistle was blown and evacuation orders lifted. Some dogs had some food and water, and some were outside in the yard. But some were tied to trees or even contained in dog crates, dooming the dog to certain death. Most survived the hurricane and died in the aftermath. For the next five weeks, people were kept out of the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans, leaving their dogs to fend for themselves.
After Katrina, people became very aware of what not to do in times of disaster. “If you go, they go,” said Garrison. “By taking your animals, you’re keeping the animals safe and you’re helping humans.”
People across the nation also learned that having a disaster and evacuation plan for all members of the household, pets included, is indispensable.
“Many of the [New Orleans] residents who were forced to leave the city had no plan for their pets,” said Tanya O’Reily, an Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO) volunteer. “These individuals had no means to flee the city on their own, so they had to rely on city assistance, which meant animals were not allowed on public transportation or in public buildings.”
Consequently, many animals were turned loose, tied to trees or abandoned with hopes they’d find their own shelter. Today, many understand this does not have to happen.
Planning for a disaster — be it a fire, flood or terrorist attack — takes a small amount of time and energy, but reaps huge benefits. Disaster professionals encourage guardians to figure out where to go with their dogs if evacuation is necessary, and where to place the dogs safely (a boarding facility in the next town, a relative’s house, etc.) if separation is necessary. Create an easy-to-grab disaster kit stocked with food (preferably kibble because it is easiest to store once opened), vet records, medication, leashes, blankets, a first-aid kit and a photo of the pet.
“Families must be prepared to evacuate for three to five days with all companion animals,” said Markarian. “Build a network of businesses and homes of professionals, friends and family members where you and your pets can find safety. Make an identification kit with relevant photographs and medical records to show proof of guardianship should you become separated.”
Pavlovic’s latest book, The Not Without My Dog Resource & Record Book, can help with this. It is a spiral-bound resource filled with information and forms ready to be filled with the dog’s information. From medical records and microchip info to first-aid steps and disaster information, the book helps guardians prepare for any type of disaster.
“I hope this book will convince people to microchip their pets, to keep all of the information in the book handy, to have a plan, to have supplies ready to go, to think things through,” Pavlovic said. “If we’re prepared for big disasters, we’re prepared for small disasters too. Katrina certainly made us think about many things that can go wrong. Those things don’t just happen to other people. They can happen to you too. If you’re prepared, they don’t have to be catastrophic.”
Too many Katrina dogs found in the aftermath had no ID tags and microchips. Keeping both of these on dogs at all times will help reunite people with pets when the tides of the disaster ebb, say rescuers.
“It’s important, too, to include a back-up emergency contact on a microchip registry,” said Markarian. “In a situation like Katrina, people were evacuated to many other states so it was difficult, sometimes impossible, to find folks even if we had their original address and phone number.” This is good information to include on a dog’s ID tag as well. Many guardians place their cell phone number as well as a neighbor’s phone number or one of a family member, just to insure a reunion with their pet.
Another item learned along the way: the importance of spaying and neutering, as well as regular pet care. Upwards of 80 percent of the animals affected by Katrina were not sterilized; many, if not most, were heartworm positive. When these dogs were left to roam in the aftermath of the storm, puppies and sick dogs were the inevitable result, equating to many more dogs needing to be saved, medically treated and adopted.
THE BIG PICTURE
While Katrina destroyed so many dwellings and businesses, it also opened up the door for other opportunities. The LA/SPCA suffered massive damage to its outdated dwelling in the Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood in New Orleans, but has since rebuilt and become one of Louisiana’s most advanced, state-of-the-art shelters equipped to deal with numerous issues facing homeless pets and animals in general.
“Hurricane Katrina placed us on a larger platform to address many animal welfare issues,” said Dauphin. “Of course, the organization itself plays only one part of a vital role. The reality is that it takes the community as a whole to embrace the mission of advancing animal welfare to move it forward.”
ARNO, the city’s only no-kill shelter, is also a by-product of Katrina. It was founded by out-of-state volunteers and local animal rescuers who banded together to save as many animals as possible in the face of Katrina.
“There was a great need for ARNO to continue its lifesaving work long after the flood waters had receded,” said O’Reily. “ Katrina proved the need for such an organization here in the south and got the ball in motion.”
Five years after the disaster, ARNO is still dealing with strays in parts of the city not rebuilt. To date, the group has saved 5,000 animals.
Combine these improvements with a national and local drive to help and make a difference, and Katrina’s lasting effect doesn’t only have to be one of death and destruction. It can also be about growth, preparation, life, salvation and hope. Hurricane Katrina may have dented our moral fiber with its power and destruction, but the nation rebounded, growing stronger and more humane as the wounds healed.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Five years after Katrina, our nation has made strides in treating animals the way they should be treated: with love, respect and protection. By no means is the aftermath of Katrina done and gone. The scars are still visible, some more than others. The recovery, and the lessons the disaster taught all of us, are a work in progress. But that’s the important part — it’s in progress. As long as the lessons Katrina taught us stay fresh in our minds, progress will continue and ultimately succeed.
Kyra Kirkwood is an award-winning, Orange County, California-based freelance writer specializing in dog reporting. She lives with her family and their three rescued dogs. Visit her website at www.kyrakirkwood.com.
Escaping the Flood WatersHurricane Katrina taught important lessons to onlookers and spectators of the disaster. However, some of the most profound lessons can be learned from the pet guardians who actually lived through the harrowing circumstances.
When Katrina threatened New Orleans five years ago, Graymond Martin and his wife Teresa decided they would ride this one out. The two lawyers had a two-story house, lived in a well-developed part of the city, and were not new to Southern storms. Besides, they had two large dogs, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, that made evacuation very difficult.
When Katrina hit, the storm proved to be nerve-wracking, but not devastating — yet. The Martins, who invited Teresa’s mother and another couple with cats to ride the storm out with them, were relieved that the worst seemed over. “We were very confident it would all be fine,” said Teresa. “We really thought it was all over.”
Then, the morning after the storm, the water began to rise. In a frighteningly short time, the Martin’s downstairs living room furniture began to float. In shock, everyone moved upstairs to drier land. Fortunately, the Martins had prepared diligently for the disaster, and the dogs had necessary food and water, as did the human counterparts. Before it stopped, the floodwater reached just below the very last step at the top of the second-story staircase. By this point, a hole had been smashed in the attic roof to allow everyone a way out if needed. The dogs Murphy, then 12, and Marley, 7, never panicked. “Our dogs were incredibly calm,” said Teresa. “Our biggest concern was our pets. We knew from prior events, when FEMA came to the rescue, it would only take people, not pets.”
The Martins refused to leave Murphy and Marley behind. So together they stayed. Luckily, as Graymond stood on the roof of his house, looking at what was once the interstate now turned into a river, he saw a speedboat race by. Waving, he caught the attention of the captain and the other men in the boat with him. They eventually made it to the Martin’s house, where they introduced themselves as private citizens hired to rescue another man.
“We’re not leaving anyone,” said the captain as he helped everyone, including the pets, in the Martin household (which by this time included two elderly neighbors Graymond rescued before the waters became dangerously high). Another neighbor also needed rescuing, and he brought along his kids, their snake and a pig. “It truly was like Noah’s Ark,” said Teresa. “We were very grateful for these folks.”
Once the boat dropped the evacuees at a makeshift rescue area under a dry spot on the interstate, Teresa saw others with pets of their own, lost and wondering what to do next. “It was the apocalypse,” she said. “It was truly surreal.”
FEMA officials were on hand to manage the evacuations. But one representative surprisingly went above and beyond, said Teresa. The little boy she arrived with cried uncontrollably when told he was unable to go back to his house and find his dog, left behind. The FEMA official reacted with compassion, asking the father for their address and then going on his own to investigate. He returned with the family’s dog.
As the Martins awaited instructions and plans for the next step, the sun beat down mercilessly. Murphy began to suffer signs of heatstroke, and drinkable water was hard to come by. Graymond kept him as cool as possible as they waited for transportation. Soon, a bus arrived to take evacuees out of the city, but the driver refused to let the Martins on because of Murphy and Marley. So out in the open they were again, this time even more confused and frustrated.
But another bus driver witnessed all of this, dismissed the rules, and told the Martins and other pet guardians to get on the bus, said Teresa. From there, they went to a makeshift shelter on a university campus, where once again, the Martins were denied access to safety because of the dogs.
A priest at the university chapel saw how the Martins sat outside in the dark with their dogs and invited them to his rectory for sanctuary. There, Teresa was able to call her stepson to come down and pick them up. The next day, he did and all of them ended up safe and far from New Orleans.
“It just took one person, like the bus driver … or the priest, who said ‘to heck with the rules’,” said Teresa. “There are lots of good folks out there.”
Kyra Kirkwood is an award-winning, Orange County, California-based freelance writer specializing in dog reporting. Kyra is also the author of ‘Move Over, Rover’ (Clarkson Potter 2009) and the OC Dog Examiner . She lives with her family and their three rescued dogs. Visit her website at www.kyrakirkwood.com.