Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Facing the eye of the storm

It was gratifying to watch Shelly's instant connection with shelter staff at Whatcom Humane Society when she was in Washington State last week. Hooking people from our field together is one of my favorite pastimes. It creates rescuer synergy. Here Shelly's engaging in "shelter speak" with superstar WHS volunteer Lynn Graham.

When it comes to bonding experiences, outrunning a hurricane together is high up on the list.

For Shelly Patton and I, the event nourished a friendship in progress, one that had already begun to bud in the wasteland left behind by natural disaster.

New Orleans first hurtled its way into my heart when I helped rescue animals there in 2005 following the devastating floods of Hurricane Katrina. Like most animal rescuers, I couldn’t stay away from the city that had been washed away, even when the initial mission was over.

I’ve returned several times since that fateful event to document the recovery and try to make sense of it all.

It was during my one-year anniversary trip there in 2006 that I first met Shelly Patton. She works at the Louisiana SPCA, the state’s lead animal welfare agency. The shelter had lost eighty percent of its staff and its entire facility to the floods. Shelly and the rest of her team were working out of trailers, the animals housed beside them in a makeshift shelter formerly operating as a coffee warehouse.

I was in New Orleans writing about the city’s animals for a piece that ran in Modern Dog magazine.

But it ended up being a very human story.

The tales told gave me hope in humanity. Researching how people risked life and limb to save their pets. How local and out-of-town rescuers worked side by side to achieve miracles amidst tragedy for the animals who were left behind to die.

When the three-year anniversary came along in August 2008, the city decided to erect a monument at city hall to the animals who suffered through the floods, and to the people who risked their personal health and safety to save them.

I knew I wanted to be there to see the statue unveiled.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Gustav had decided to be there too. The giant storm was scheduled to hit New Orleans on August 28th, the exact same day Katrina had made landfall three years earlier.

With the levee system still in tatters, it was quite possible that the city would flood again.

Rescuers who went to the ceremony were poised to help if the worst happened. Instead of spending a peaceful afternoon of fanfare down at city hall remembering what was saved and mourning what was lost, we left the ceremony on the hunt for survival supplies: ice, water, food for several days. Coolers and gas cans filled with extra fuel.

It would be days before the hurricane hit, but that night I returned to my hotel to find a flyer had been slipped under my door. City officials had ordered the hotels to close down the following day, and to turn guests out of their rooms. Visitors were instructed to leave the city at once.

But I didn’t feel like a visitor.

I had a job to do. Now that FEMA had new rules in place, laws had changed. The pets were going with their people for the first time in history, and I wanted—no, needed— to be there to write about it.

I decided I wasn’t leaving. I had planned to ride the hurricane out in my car. Then Shelly Patton saved the day. She invited me to join the Louisiana SPCA’s team, to write and photograph their efforts to help the animals for the organization’s website. Every hotel room just outside the storm zone was booked solid, but they graciously invited me to squish into one of their rooms.

There would be three people, five dogs and a rabbit sharing the space for several days. And all the rooms occupied by shelter staff were just as chock full as ours. The hotel’s generator was operating only to serve food in a dining room, so the rooms had running water but no electricity.

But it was still a refuge compared to the alternative.

I won’t forget the eerie drive out of town that day to Baton Rouge. By the time animal rescuers left the city, it was just hours before Gustav’s scheduled landing. The highways leading out of New Orleans were jammed in every direction but one: the path of the hurricane. Three of us were driving in a convoy. Shelly, SPCA staffer Ginger Morvant and me.

We were taking our animal-laden vehicles out using the only wormhole left.

While people sat for hours on freeways waiting to escape with the rest, we drove free and clear, the only three vehicles on the road for most of the two-hour drive.

Traveling a path that’s separate from the one everyone else is taking is simultaneously liberating and terrifying. But sometimes it’s the right road.

After we parked our cars in the hotel lot, Shelly asked me to move mine closer to hers. Good thing she did, because I had been parked in this empty space. It wasn't empty for long. The wind snatched the metal hotel sign taking it down effortlessly, like it was a spindly toothpick.

Two city workers setting up a barricade parked a little too close to the water's edge, and their truck slid right into the drink. They had to climb out the back window to escape. They were quite embarrassed when I interviewed them at the water's edge, and weren't anxious to have their photos taken.

I had the chance to interview one of the country's most famous mayors, Ray Nagin. For months his face was plastered all over the news as he led the city's recovery from Katrina, and negotiated with state and federal officials. Nagin stopped by the pet evacuation center to see how the efforts of animal rescuers were progressing.

While visiting our local shelters last week, Shelly also met Whatcom Humane Society executive director Laura Clark, who gave her a tour of the Williamson Way shelter.

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