Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Look into the light

The scale of destruction is impossible to convey in a photo. Trees were uprooted like toothpicks. It took my breath away.

Like a bat signal beamed into the sky, the call for help shone out and spoke to each of us when Katrina’s storm surge rolled in. Independent of each other, animal rescuers flocked to a city in trouble.

But the lighted cry for help wasn’t coming from anything resembling the fictional Gotham City Police Department. Far from it. In fact, it wasn’t put out by an official agency of any type.

It was the continuously looping news footage broadcasting from flickering television sets and computer screens that drew rescuers to New Orleans, where we would sneak into a drowned city to save the pets despite myriad dangers.

The animals were residents of New Orleans too, and the government had denied their passage to safety, causing great anguish to the people who loved them. And their inexorable suffering also brought pain to humans they didn’t even know—the animal rescuers.

We responded en masse. The cries came from the animals, but also from their guardians, who telephoned our temporary shelters in the coming weeks and months begging us to break down their soggy doors to save their starving, dehydrated pets.

Locals from the rescue community worked alongside out-of-towners to do the job together, a rescue effort that was too big for locals alone. Seasoned rescuers saved alongside animal lovers who had never been in the field before. Veterinarians and vet techs, cat trappers and dog trainers, shelter staffers and animal welfare volunteers. In a rescue community known for squabbling, we put aside our differences in order to perform this history-making, life-saving mission.

The rescue would test us, and it would define life’s meaning in a way the rest of our lives never had.

I made my first trip there four weeks after the storm had passed. I had no idea what to expect. I was traveling alone. When I go into dangerous situations, I tend to feel safer by myself. At least my own behavior is predictable to me.

I carried directions to places outside the city where different groups had assembled makeshift shelters. Their locations were being kept under wraps because people had been stealing dogs from temporary shelters, which eventually ended up being under guard. But if you were connected to the rescue community, you could find out where the shelters were.

The United flight into New Orleans didn’t appear to contain residents, who still weren’t allowed to return. Instead, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, Red Cross workers, and insurance agents filled the seats.

A dirty, skinny collie was sprinting down the runway as the plane descended into Louis Armstrong Airport, swerving off the pavement to escape the roaring bird that chased him. Slipping through a hole in the fence, he was gone. The airport, one of the few gathering places left as people travelled in and out of the deserted ruins, likely lured the hungry dog because of its garbage output. It was the first glimpse of the horror I would witness in New Orleans in the days ahead.

When passengers disembarked at the terminal, the luggage carts had mysteriously disappeared. Carts had vanished, yet wheelchairs were parked crazily everywhere. Perhaps that was because this airport had served as a triage center for days, a hellhole where the sickest residents were kept alive before being transported away from the city to safety. If they survived that long.

I had watched them suffering and dying on the news, and as I waited for my luggage to roll down onto the carousel, I imagined the sights and sounds of misery that must have permeated this building a few weeks before.

I had two large duffel bags filled with survival gear including a tent, sleeping bag, carbon mask, gloves, boots, and enough snacks to last two weeks. I liberated one of the wheelchairs to haul my stuff. When I got to the rental car parking lot, it was a mess. The vehicles were dirty, nearly empty of gas, and strewn in disarray.

“Take any car you want. The keys are in them,” the clerk said wearily.

I looked at the cars for a moment before choosing one, weighing my concerns about finding gas with my need for a large vehicle to haul animals. Then I decided on a minivan. Someone would know where to find gas, I figured.

I thought the hours spent watching coverage of the floods on the television had prepared me for what I would encounter. I was wrong. Dead wrong. The scale of destruction eclipsed my imagination’s outermost boundaries, leaving its residue of despair in my mind long after I came home.

Most of us—though not all—would return home from New Orleans eventually. As for Katrina, she stayed with us.

The force of the storm uprooted this tree effortlessly, taking the sidewalk's paving stones with it.

Coming up next on Carreen’s Rescue Blog…

Find out what I encountered when I arrived at the triage shelter set up by Washington state-based animal welfare group Pasado’s Safe Haven. A kind attorney and his wife living near New Orleans in Raceland had reached out over the Internet to offer Pasado's the use of their 150-acre farm.

The carriers stand outside the barn, washed and ready for their next trip into the city.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing these stories Carreen. It's hard to read but such a touching tribute to what we experienced. I might just pull my own pictures out in the near future. Deep breath.