Bobby Alberti could hardly imagine how to say goodbye to his dog, Rover. So he didn’t.
Instead, while Rover played with another dog in a temporary shelter for hurricane evacuees in New Orleans, Alberti slipped away. He boarded a Coast Guard helicopter that would take him to an evacuation site for humans only. Later he would meet up with his sister and brother-in-law. They would take him to their home in Houston where, like tens of thousands of others, he could begin to think about how to put his life back together after losing his home to Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive storms ever to strike an American coastline.
Leaving Rover was easily the most difficult thing Alberti ever had to do. Alberti had adopted Rover, a black Labrador-Dalmatian, at an animal shelter, and the two had been living with Alberti’s mother at her home in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. But two years ago, Alberti’s mother died. Rover was all Alberti had. And they were inseparable.
When Alberti had to climb onto a rooftop on the day Katrina struck, he wouldn’t leave Rover behind. He tried his best to hoist the 80-pound Rover onto a ladder. But Alberti, who is 59 and slight in build, couldn’t do it. As the flood water raged around him, he kept a tight grip on Rover’s leash while the dog paddled alongside, exhausted. Finally, Rover was able to clamber upon a piece of fence floating nearby.
After what seemed like a year, but was perhaps just a half hour, a Coast Guard helicopter came to the rescue. “I’m not leaving without my dog,” Alberti declared. And so the Coast Guard took them both.
But at the New Orleans shelter, there was no arguing with the authorities. They told Alberti the shelter was no longer safe and he had to go to a new site that would not accept pets. Don’t worry, he was told, his dog would receive good care. But Bobby wasn’t so sure. The whole rescue effort seemed chaotic.
At the same time, Alberti feared for his life. What if the new shelter flooded, too? He could die. Then what would happen to Rover? So Alberti walked away from Rover with tears streaming down his cheeks. He doubted whether he would ever see his best friend again.
A month would pass – a month during which Alberti stayed with his sister and thought far more about his dog than his ruined home or when he could return to his job. Racked with guilt over having left his pet behind, Alberti was inconsolable.
As it turned out, Bobby and Rover found each other again. On October 3, the Humane Society of Missouri reunited Bobby with Rover at a tearful reunion at HSMO’s headquarters in St. Louis.
Bobby’s story is just one of thousands you can find in New Orleans and along 150 miles of shoreline in Louisiana and Mississippi, and not all of them have happy endings. But many do. Out of the whirlwind came an animal rescue effort mounted from all corners of the country.
Within days after Hurricane Katrina struck, hundreds of well-trained rescue workers responded – including eight from the Humane Society of Missouri. Armed with catch poles, hip waders, and wet suits, they dove under buildings and climbed onto rooftops to rescue pets on the brink of starvation and traumatized from hours of swimming for their lives. The animals were later shipped to HSMO and other animal welfare organizations across the nation. Those agencies, in turn, invited families to take the pets into their homes either as foster or adoptive parents. As a result, many owners who either had to leave their pets behind or who were separated from them in the relief effort could enjoy tearful reunions days and weeks later.
The humane organizations also used the disaster as a teachable moment to shine a light on their operations and the problems stemming from pet overpopulation. Americans contributed millions of dollars to these organizations so that they could rebuild facilities, add spay and neuter programs, and promote adoptions. Animal welfare advocates also button-holed legislators and policymakers, telling them that they had to change regulations that separated victims from their pets during a rescue. Legislators have since introduced legislation on both the state and federal levels.
No one knows how many animals perished in the hurricane and its aftermath. Estimates range from as few as several thousand to more than a hundred thousand. Surely more could have been saved if the animal rescue had not been hampered by the same sort of jurisdictional and political problems that impeded the human rescue effort.
But what most of those involved in the animal rescue effort will remember is the cadre of everyday American workers and volunteers whose enormous energy and compassion for animal life was demonstrated day after day under the most adverse conditions. They worked relentlessly, without sleep, away from their homes and families, going out early and staying out late, trying to save just one more dog or cat. They could not bear to abandon an animal.
This account focuses in particular on the efforts of four animal welfare organizations that played a critical role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – the Humane Society of Missouri, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of Southern Mississippi, and the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Together they rescued more than 10,000 animals, reunited hundreds of families with their pets, and found new homes for thousands more.
The accounts they have shared with one another have become part of Katrina lore. Stories like those of Bobby Alberti and:
□ Kathy Warnick and the staff of the Missouri Humane Society. Warnick sent a corps of a dozen highly-trained animal rescue and investigation officers, a shelter manager and technicians, and a veterinarian and veterinary technicians who would save thousands of animals. Gulf Coast officials praised the group for its professionalism, patience, and skill in rescuing and caring for all manner of pets and wildlife -- Pugs and Pekinese, Persians and Siamese, horses and hogs, geese, and even a ’gator.
□ Laura Maloney and the New Orleans SPCA staff members, who evacuated and saved every animal from their shelter in the lower Ninth Ward. Ultimately, they lost the shelter and many of their own homes when the levees broke. Soldiering on, within days they helped establish a massive animal intake facility at the Lamar-Dixon Exposition Center about 50 miles north of New Orleans. From there, thousands of animals were shipped to safe havens across the nation.
□ Tara High and the Humane Society of Southern Mississippi. High took over operation of the shelter just a couple of days after Katrina struck. What she found was a flooded shelter and a decimated staff. Half had fled the area and their jobs, never to return. Today, High has her organization in brand new facilities and is saving and adopting out more animals than ever before.
□ Patty Mercer and the staff of the Houston SPCA who put out the welcome mat for hundreds of animals evacuated from New Orleans. Within days, they found foster and adoptive families for these pets, and within weeks reunited many with their original families.
□ Dr. James Riopelle of New Orleans, an anesthesiologist, who after doing what he could to save his patients at Lindy Boggs Medical Center, remained behind in the darkened, flooded facility to care for 60 animals that otherwise would have been euthanized.
This tale begins on August 26, 2005, a day after Katrina spun from tropical storm to hurricane.
Chapter 7 – Racing the sun
September 7-20, 2005
“Let’s go, go, go,” shouted rescue chief, Debbie Hill, each day as she rose before dawn at the Humane Society of Missouri’s base camp at the Mississippi Coliseum and State Fair Grounds in Jackson. It had been more than a week since Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf Coast and Hill knew that time was running out for thousands of pets trapped in homes throughout the region. The rescuers had only the daylight hours to work with. The region was still without power and at night, in the nearly pitch black darkness, it was dangerous to work around downed power lines and to enter homes where floors and ceilings might collapse. In the second week of September, 2005, the sun was rising at about 6:40 a.m. and setting at about 7:15 p.m. It could take up to two hours to drive to a rescue site, then another two hours to bring animals back where they could be registered, treated, bathed, and fed. So there was no time to waste.
And yet, it seemed to Hill like the operation overseen by the Humane Society of the United States was too often running in place. They spent too much daylight time in meetings and strategy sessions. There were waits for specialists to be brought in to handle one aspect of the operation or the other. Increasingly, the HSMO crew skipped the meetings so they could round up the animals.
At the same time, Hill could see the long hours were beginning to take a toll on her group. The work didn’t stop after the sun set. Under the illumination of headlights and flashlights the crew worked with the animals, cleaned cages, and got their equipment ready for the next day’s forays. Those tired bodies hadn’t seen a mattress in many days. Tim Rickey slept in the cab of their truck, his feet propped up on the dashboard; Kyle Held slept on the tool box in the bed of the pickup. Carmen Skelly slept on a cot, that she brought from home, between the two HSMO trucks. Brett Huff would awaken with tread marks on his face from sleeping (where?). Many staff members were up well before Hill’s wakeup call because it was best to rise at 4:30 a.m. if you didn’t want to be in line behind 75 other rescue workers waiting on the two shower stalls at the coliseum.
Once on the road, the workers were back in their element, riding high on the adrenaline that comes from rescuing. And they were up for anything – not just dogs and cats, but swans, seagulls and even a ’gator. As Hill, Held, and Huff were driving along the one day, they spotted a group gathered around an alligator that had somehow found its way to the ocean. They learned that a nearby oceanarium had flooded, washing many of the inhabitants into the sea. Already staff members had pulled out a walrus and a seal.
The alligator may have been attracted to the salt water when he saw what seemed like 40 tons of Tyson chicken that also had been washed into the sea. Huff and Held lit out from the trunk almost before Hill could pull to a stop. They plunged into the brackish, bacteria-laden water to see how they could help. That angered Hill who was concerned for their safety. She saw that they had gone in without the protection of their protective rubber suits.
Following the HSMO workers into the ocean was a man named Lloyd from Florida with even less protection, but with tons of self assurance. The man waded in bare-chested and barefoot amidst the flotsam of broken building materials and decaying chickens, and jumped onto the back of the alligator. As he seized the alligator under its chin, Held grabbed the tail. Then, as Held put it: “We wallered our way up the beach until someone runs up with duct tape.” Once they had secured the alligator’s snout, the rescue became a lot easier. Lloyd later hauled the animal in his truck to a fresh water inlet and released it.
The rescue gave the group a sense of closure which didn’t come along very often on the Gulf Coast. Everyday the teams would transport dozens of dogs and cats back to Jackson or another temporary intake facility that HSMO workers Brian Thomas and Linda Campbell had established in Gulfport. These animals – somebody’s pets – would then be shipped to Hattiesburg, then most likely to another state, leaving the workers to wonder whether they ever would be reunited with their families.
At the Gulfport shelter, Campbell would both counsel and console the families that would come looking for their pets. In some cases, the pets may have been there, but they since had been moved along to another shelter. In other cases, displaced residents came with their pets but would have to give them up because they were no longer in a position to care for them. Campbell found it heart wrenching.
Campbell met an elderly man and his wife, who were looking for their 10-year-old tabby named Marmalade. The two had decided to stay at home with their dog and cat during the hurricane and found themselves washed out of their home in the storm surge. The man managed to hold onto his dog, but he lost his grip on Marmalade. The man had spent a couple of days in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Now the couple was looking everywhere for Marmalade. Could she be here? Had anyone turned her in?
Campbell said the couple looked as if “they simply could not get their lives together until they found that cat.” And yet she was unable to offer anything but sympathy.
But some stories offered the promise of a happy ending. One happy reunion began with a call from Frank Leach, the emergency operations commander in Ocean Springs, to his Missouri friend Tim Rickey. He had a sister-in-law who left a couple of cats behind at her home in New Orleans. She had a neighbor who had left some poodles. Is there anyway you guys can help?
Well, as it so happened, Rickey and Huff took that call in New Orleans. Their boss, Kathy Warnick, had dispatched them there at the request of the Humane Society of the United States. They’d see what they could do.
It was about that time that Debbie Hill began to wonder how the Humane Society of Missouri was going to sustain the rescue effort. This adventure was much bigger than anyone had bargained for. HSMO had a disaster reserve fund of $15,000. The lease on the RV the organization was using cost $1,000 a week, then there was the cost of gas at sky high prices, the food, and the salaries for what was then eight staffers working nearly around the clock. Broken equipment needed to be repaired or replaced.
Neither Hill nor Kathy Warnick had any idea how much the whole operation would cost, but it was soaring well into six figures.
Hill had been so busy for so many days that she hadn’t had time to recognize how the disaster relief effort, human and animal, had gripped the nation. She could easily see how it had brought thousands of volunteers down to the Gulf Coast to do what they could. What she didn’t know was the impact her daily reports were having as they were posted on the Humane Society of Missouri’s website. Animal lovers were rapt. Equally compelling were the pictures sent in by Mike Bizelli, a local photographer that Warnick had sent with the team.
“Am I going to have enough money to replace people’s boots?” Hill asked Warnick after the team had returned from another long, grinding day.
Well, Warnick replied, she thought so. In recent days, animal lovers had donated $110,000 to their cause.
Stunned at first, Hill later wept over that good news. And so did many members of her team after she shared it with them. Americans wanted the stranded animals rescued, cared for, and returned to loving homes. It made the heat and the heartache just a bit more bearable.
As Brett Huff and Tim Rickey drove their launch through the flooded streets of New Orleans Lakeview section, they checked a map and counted blocks until they reached the 6000 block of Louisville Street.
They were looking for Brenda Reilly’s home and, more particularly, looking for Snowball and Murphy, the two cats she had left behind a couple of weeks earlier.
When the two found Reilly’s house, they feared the worst. The force of the flood water had knocked it sideways. The waterline had reached 5 ½ feet. They had to kick and pry their way in through the door. As the two entered, they felt nauseated and dizzy. It wasn’t just from having spent the day sweltering in dry suits under a broiling sun with a heat index of more than 116 degrees. But it was also what they saw – and smelled. They could tell this home had once been beautifully maintained and a great source of pride to Reilly. But now its walls were caked in mold an inch thick and it stank like an open sewer. If it felt like 116 degrees outside, it felt like 130 degrees inside. How could cats survive in these conditions?
Well, not so badly, as it turned out. Murphy and Snowball had taken refuge upstairs. They found one of the kitties in the master bedroom; the other under the bed in the guest room. Huff and Rickey could tell that despite their ordeal, these cats had been pampered all their lives. They were, in fact, fat.
Under normal circumstances, the two would have taken the pets to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center where Brenda Reilly could have driven to pick them up. But they didn’t for two reasons.
Huff and Rickey remembered what Reilly’s brother-in-law had done for them in getting Mississippi officials to allow them to get going with their rescue efforts. They wanted to return the favor in the best possible way. They also had a selfish reason. For weeks, now the two had been rescuing one animal after another and putting them on vans and trucks to be shipped to God knows where. Not once had they seen a pet reunited with its owner. Now they had that chance.
So one night, the two drove the 90 miles to meet up with Reilly at the Humane Society base camp .Reilly was nearly overcome when she saw her pets. She gave Rickey and Huff huge hugs..
How did the cats react? “Well, they seemed happy to see us,” Reilly said. “But you know it’s hard to tell with cats.”