It is now a few days past the 10th anniversary of the landing of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast and the resulting devastation that was visited on the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. Many of the citizens of that beautiful city initially thought they had dodged a bullet when Katrina was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane, however, that hope was denied when the horrific reality of failed levees and broken floodwalls left areas of the city flooded.

Almost 2,000 people died, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and an unknown number of pets were left behind – homeless, without shelter, food, or drinkable water.

Today, thanks to the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act passed by Congress in 2006, states seeking the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are required to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for evacuating residents facing disasters.

A year earlier, in the aftermath of Katrina, we all saw the terrible stories coming from the area showing animals being pulled from the arms of loving family and not being allowed to board transportation out of the city. Television footage showed dogs clinging to flooded rooftops, swimming desperately to find some kind of safety; horses standing in chest deep water with nowhere to go, no food in sight; stray cats fending for themselves in the oily waters left behind.

As an animal lover and a veterinary professional, I was horrified that families seeking shelter and safety were forced by a government agency to leave their furry family members to a very uncertain – and likely deadly – future. Blessedly, I had 2 weeks of vacation scheduled at just that time (ironically, previous plans had been to spend 10 days in New Orleans prior to this disaster). I knew what I had to do.

I removed all but one of the seats from a rented van and filled it with bags and bags of dog and cat food and kitty litter donated by work associates of my then-husband. The clinic in Dallas where I worked gave me boxes of fluids and IV setups, cases of medicine, bandages and supplies, and piles upon piles of bedding and extra towels and blankets. By the time the van was totally filled, I had just enough room for a small bag of personal items and extra scrubs and myself. I left Dallas headed to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana, 60 miles west of New Orleans near Baton Rouge where I knew the Louisiana SPCA and other animal rescue groups were using the former equestrian center as a staging area for all rescued animals coming out of the city.
I knew no one there but realized that a qualified, experienced vet tech could be of use.

Outside of Baton Rouge, the DJ on the local radio station announced that veterinary help was desperately needed in Lafayette – about 40 miles behind me – for the pets of evacuees that had made it out with their animals before the city shut down. The families were staying on the campus of what later became the Univ. of Louisiana at Lafayette and their animals were quartered in a huge, ancient rodeo arena. I turned around and made it to the arena at dark, just as the volunteers working there were shutting the doors.

For 3 days I worked with one retired veterinarian from California, 2 animal control officers from Georgia and 2 or 3 local volunteers caring for the 400 dogs and cats living in kennels inside the arena. Their families were asked to show up daily at 7am to feed, walk and clean kennels, but many of the animals were left to us to care for them. Since the evacuees had to leave the arena by 6pm each evening due to curfew restrictions, it was up to we four professionals to tend to the animals overnight. It was hard, long, hot work, but I met great people and knew I was where I was supposed to be.

On the fourth day, the vet who was supervising asked me if I wanted to go with her into New Orleans as part of the Red Star Rescue team from American Humane Association. I readily agreed. We packed up that morning and drove my van into Gonzales and the Expo Center.

There, we met with volunteers and AC officers from American Humane who outfitted us in our navy uniforms with the big red star on the front and, very quickly, gave us specific instructions and guidelines on what to expect, how to behave, and who was in charge. Our first stop in New Orleans was to be the triage facility for the LaSPCA where we were to pick up a list of addresses we were assigned to search for left-behind pets.

During the 10 days I worked in New Orleans, I was teamed with 2 female AC officers from Florida, a Red Star volunteer from Utah, and the very fit, very tall Oregon National Guard sergeant who was assigned to protect us with his AK-47 assigned weapon. In that time, I learned…

  • how to climb fences, bust open padlocked doors, and dismantle A/C units to break into boarded up houses looking for animals.
  • that abandoned cats will empty a toilet bowl of water if they’re very, very thirsty.
  • how to use a “catch pole” to corner and save a very frightened, very aggressive pit bull.
  • that 96% of the animals our team saved in New Orleans were heartworm positive.
  • that most Animal Control officers, those often maligned and vastly underpaid civil servants, really do care for the animals they are expected to save.
  • that many of the families who fled the city would later illegally sneak back in the dead of night to look for their beloved pets.
  • and, when those pets were found, those same families would find our team to seek medical attention and food for their often sick, injured, and starving animals.
  • that young Guardsmen just back from the rigors of Afghanistan were more than happy to deploy to New Orleans to “take care of our own.”
  • that those same Guardsmen would share their dinners with animal rescue workers and the herd of feral cats that lived in their compound.
  • that New Orleans at night, with no people, no electricity, no music, no lights is a very eerie place to be.
  • that I could place a catheter in a dehydrated, nearly comatose older Rottweiler and that same dog would lick my hand while I did it.
  • that a seasoned war veteran will scream like a little girl when two scared cats jump out at him from their hiding place in a closet.
  • that, even though I was charged and given the authority to euthanize any animal I deemed necessary, I was eternally grateful I never had to make that decision.
  • that many people will die rather than leave their pets behind during a catastrophe.
  • that it was necessary our government change the laws regarding the evacuation of pets with their families. Thankfully, a year later, that Congressional bill – the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act – became a law.

Ten years later, should your family be forced to evacuate because of any disaster, your pets can go with you.

In honor of National Disaster Preparedness month, we are repeating a simple checklist of things to pack away so that they’re easily attainable if the worst should happen:

  • Set up a crate or kennel for each pet. If you pets can fit easily and comfortably together in one kennel, then they may be able to comfort each other during the move. Tape your name and phone number and your vet’s name and phone number to the crate in case you get separated.
  • Line the kennels with newspapers or potty pads. Place small litter boxes filled with litter in the crates if you have cats. Add an extra bed for each pet and a couple of their favorite toys.
  • Pack away an extra set of pet bowls and enough food and water for several day’s mealtimes. You won’t always know where you’re going or where you’ll be staying during an evacuation.
  • Bring along enough leashes, collars and halters for all your pets. Make sure all collars have tags that include your name and phone number in case one of you pets gets loose.
  • Make sure all of your pets are microchipped for identification purposes in case they should become lost.
  • Carry an extra set of all pet meds and medical records with your veterinarians’ name, address, and phone number in your pet First Aid kit. See our April 1 blog on how to prepare a pet First Aid kit.

If you have any questions about how to have your pets prepared in the event of a disaster, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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