Monday, August 31, 2009

The silver lining after the storm

Photos in this post courtesy of Pasado's Safe Haven, the Washington state-based animal rescue group I joined up with shortly after I arrived in the destroyed city.

I’ve never celebrated the anniversaries of tragic moments. I don’t even retain the dates. I see people remembering death and destruction on the days they fall annually by the calendar, when I just want to forget.

But this time, I’m making an exception. I can’t help but pay homage to the largest natural disaster in the United States. Because it was the biggest. And because I was there to witness its aftermath.

Four years ago today, I was glued to a TV screen watching the tragedy unfold with horror, knowing what was coming next. What would happen to the animals? I wasn’t the only one. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina had made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and the weeks that followed were nail-biters for animal rescuers across the U.S. and Canada.

When the storm surge came in Katrina’s wake, most of the levees protecting Greater New Orleans were breached—53 in all. Within hours, eighty percent of the city that’s nestled into a land basin was submerged, with water reaching 20 feet deep in some places. People ran and swam for their lives.

But citizens were forced to leave their most treasured belongings behind—their pets. As was tradition, the government refused to allow animals on the evacuation buses. Early footage began trickling out showing animals clinging to treetops, swimming beside boats, and paddling for their lives while they struggled to survive an abandoned city.

Because of widespread looting and violence, the city was locked down under a state of emergency, Louisiana’s version of martial law. The military threatened to shoot trespassers. And that included us.

But animal rescuers—a gritty and determined group—were infiltrating the city anyway. We are naturally programmed to help creatures in trouble. We couldn’t stand to sit back idly and watch. We had to get in.

Rescuers on the scene in the early days of the disaster were reporting their tragic findings via the Internet, telling us we could self-deploy, but no one would be responsible for our health and safety.

Noah’s Ark may not have been on hand to save the animals when the storm struck, but a cavalry of sorts wasn’t far behind. Independent of each other, thousands of rescuers of all stripes traveled to New Orleans to help with the largest animal rescue in world history.

Many thousands of pets would make it out alive thanks to people who ignored official orders, but obeyed their own laws of the heart.

As a result of Katrina, federal laws would be changed forever.

And so would we.

What’s up next on Carreen’s Rescue Blog…

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing short pieces on what we experienced in the field. Stories of tragedy and destruction, but also of hope and inspiration. It was a life-altering experience for those of us who tended to the victims of the floodwaters, and I'll take you there to see it through my eyes.


Anonymous said...

I can remember the day in the photo like it was yesterday. That dogs was very overweight and we used a manhole cover (they are hard rubber down there) to float her in waist deep water about 1/2 mile to shallow water. I look forward to read the rest of your posts. Rita

Anonymous said...

In a convoluted sort of way, all of us animal lovers living in hurricane/surge prone areas, feel indebted to New Orleans. We would not have wished for its suffering, of course, but there is no doubt that Katrina changed the mentality of many.

We live in Florida and a year earlier, the eye of Charley, a category 4 hurricane, passed directly over our home so we know a little of what happens after these storms cut a swath through residential areas. However, we were spared the surge, spared the horror of the power of water. But even during Charley, humans lost their lives because they refused to leave their animals. After Charley, the seeds of “animal friendly” shelters were sown, but it took the aftermath of Katrina to really change the status quo, to recognize that animals are family and to allow not only the people, but also the animals into the shelters.

Since Katrina, our preparation literature includes preparing our animals for these disasters, ensuring that their carriers are ready and their shots up to date. My hope is that in some small way, the people of New Orleans may derive comfort from the fact that because of what they endured, we have come a long way towards ensuring the safety of our animals as well as our humans.