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Hurricane Katrina: Animal Rescuer’s First Trip to the Gulf
Like most of America, I had watched Katrina’s devastation on television. I work from home and keep a TV on in my office. The haunting images of Katrina’s wrath, I learned by heart. It didn’t take long,
before I started seeing animals in the television footage of the destruction. They were everywhere, on the roof, looking out the windows, swimming for their lives and
being carried across the floodwaters in their owner’s arms. I kept thinking… someone has to do something about these animals. I remember a feeling of helplessness and panic. “Why isn’t someone doing something??”
One morning, about a week after the storm, sitting at my desk watching animals fighting for survival on TV… I heard a voice… a loud voice… “You gotta go!” It almost felt like it was coming over my shoulder, though
I was alone at home. I never questioned what I heard, it was so powerful! Immediately, I started emailing all the large groups of animals that were heading my way
region, providing assistance. Humane Society of the United States, ASPCA and many others. I kept getting automated email responses: “we’ll get back to you,” and I started getting
very impatient. I felt that my 20 years of experience with exotic birds could be put to good use…somewhere in the region. I waited impatiently to hear from someone, for two days. I finally said “to hell with it!!” and I literally packed up my car and headed out, not knowing exactly where I was going, or what I was going to do. I had heard of a staging area, the Lamar Dixon Equine Center in Gonzales Louisiana, where they were taking all kinds of animals that were being rescued. I thought I’d start there.
What made me think I had something to offer the situation, I have no idea?
I am not a particularly brave person and my only real qualification was, an intense love of animals. All of them, not just parrots.
With my little Volkswagen Cabrio packed to the gills, a tent I had borrowed, a sleeping bag, box of granola bars, canned nuts, crackers, 6 cases of bottled water, 15 gallons of gas in gas cans, Gatorade, jeans and t-shirts for a few weeks, boots, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and baby wipes. I jumped on I-10 west and headed for Louisiana. Little did I know that the person who went out that day… would not be the person who came back.
Armed with Map Quest’s directions, I spent the next 16 hours on a journey that Map Quest said would take 8-9 hours. I-10 was filled with all kinds of relief workers, utility trucks, church groups, heavy equipment trucks and semis. Their license plates were from all over the east coast. I would see groups of about 20 electric company trucks riding close together, with their matching Electric Company logos on the sides of their trucks. There were endless caravans of various telephone companies, police and fire departments and trucks, filled with chainsaws, bottled water and workers, all heading west. Everyone that day was rushing to help. The feeling of being on that highway, that day, was terrifying and electric at the same time.
Traffic moved steadily until I reached the Mississippi border. Traffic turned into a parking lot of vehicles slowing to a crawl. This is where I first started
seeing the signs of Katrina’s anger. The first thing I noticed was that the large signboards along the highway were damaged. The +3ft heavy metal poles holding them up were twisted like pretzels. With each mile, the damage worsened and
eventually there was no sign anywhere. No highway signs, no exit signs … no signs PERIOD. I began to see mattresses scattered along the highway and clothes hanging from the trees that bordered the highway. The houses I could see had roof damage and many were wearing new blue tarps to replace the shingles that were once there.
When I got to the I-10 Pascagoula Bridge, all traffic had to be diverted to the westbound side. A barge had taken out a large span of the east side of the twin bridge during the storm. I remember thinking, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Little did I know at the time how profound that statement would be. So far I had only seen a glimpse of what awaited me.
At one point the traffic was increasing, a few meters at a time. This went on for hours. There was a guy on a Harley right in front of me whose bike was loaded with bags. I finally pulled my car alongside him so we could talk… I was going crazy at this snails pace. He was on his way to Biloxi from Tampa Florida. He was a trauma nurse and would volunteer for a week to help out at a hospital. I wish I could have talked to more of those people on I-10 that day. Everyone had a story, where they came from… where they were going and what they were going to do. To see this outpouring of love touched my heart deeply.
The further I drove, the worse the devastation continued. It’s a strange feeling to get off a highway and not know where you are. The lack of signs turned out to be very disconcerting for me, and I finally had to pull off the highway, find someone just to ask “Where am I?”, to get some kind of bearing. I went up to a half-destroyed insurance office where I saw 2 men trying to recover some items from their damaged business. They asked me where I was going and I told them I was going to Gonzales, Louisiana. They wanted to know why I was going there and I told them I wanted to help the animals. One man’s face lit up and he started telling me all about his Jack Russell. He even pulled out his wallet and showed me his little “Jack” picture. It was obvious how just the thought of his pet brought a smile to his face. When I left, this man said, “Thank you for coming to help us” I felt extremely embarrassed to hear this and I shouted a “You’re welcome”. I learned I was somewhere outside of Gulfport, Mississippi and moved on.
What was scary in the daylight became even scarier at night. However, the darkness spared me from seeing the devastation along the interstate. I knew it was there…
and my imagination began to go into double time. I would realize later, that my imagination did not even come close to the terrifying reality.
I was so ready to go to a place where I could get out of my car. There were no rest stops along the highway, they were all closed because most of them no longer existed and their entrances were all barricaded. Needless to say, the toilet facilities were reduced to a paper cup I found in my car. The My Map Quest directions had become useless because the suggested highways were no longer open. They all had to go through Baton Rouge and retreat.
I finally arrived in Gonzales, Louisiana at 11pm and found the Lamar Dixon Equestrian Center. There was a checkpoint gate manned by the National Guard. After all this travel, they didn’t want to let me in. Fortunately for me, I have a knack for talking my way into or out of situations. My mouth started watering and I felt like I knew what I was doing. After a lot of BS, I was finally allowed in! I sometimes wonder what I would have done if they hadn’t made that decision to let me in that night. Who knows, but I’m sure I would have come up with something.
The first thing I saw were tents everywhere and I could hear dogs barking in the distance.
I started towards the dogs. Lamar Dixon is a great show center. In 6 “barns” there are about 960 horse stalls. Eventually I found myself in Barn 6 wandering around; trying to find someone who knew what was going on. The dogs were EVERYWHERE … hundreds of them. There were just a few people cleaning wire crates and walking some dogs. I found out that the “responsibles” had gone to bed. Someone saw me standing there and asked me to walk a dog. I was given a leash that had a very emaciated white Pit Bull attached to it. He looked up at me with painful scared eyes and we started walking. The first things that hit me was how noisy it was with all the dogs barking, the heat and how big this place was. When I returned the dog to the barn, a girl asked me where I was sleeping. I shrugged and she motioned for me to pitch my tent next to hers. I followed him to a back corner in the complex. It was dark and I had never pitched a tent before. So she and another guy who was in a tent in the area helped me out.
No matter how tired I was from the trip, I could hardly sleep. It was very hot and humid and there was no air movement anywhere. I finally had to take off all my clothes and lay down in as little bedclothes as possible. It’s hard to sleep when you have sweat pouring out of every pore of your body. Finally exhaustion got the better of me and I dozed off. Breakfast came quickly…
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