10 Years On: An Oral History of Katrina Animal Rescue part 3: Reality
Morning came far too soon, a watery dawn with a moldy odor. The front seat of a Chevy minivan is not the best of accommodations, and I creaked as I stumbled across the compound. As the light grew I got my first real sight of New Orleans. Broken, shattered, twisted, sodden, stinking, the adjectives all fell short. There were portable toilets, but they hadn’t been emptied in too long. No one to empty them actually. Across the road the National Guard encampment was stirring, humvees coming in with the night patrol, heading out with the day shift. Jarring. I was eight hours from my home, in my own country, and soldiers with automatic weapons were heading out to patrol the streets. This shouldn’t be happening in the U.S. I thought. This can’t be real. This isn’t right.
Yummy breakfast. A granola bar and a bottle of water. Brushing my teeth from another bottle of water. Splashing my face with a bottle of water. There were lots of bottles of water.
I met Mike Pagano, co-commander of the camp. We determined where the supplies needed to go and started to unload. I really only MEANT to go drop a load of supplies. Sure.
Morning camp meeting came next. Duties were parceled out, rescue plans for the day coordinated. I listened, planning myself one thing — my exit. Mike asked me to stay a bit and see the camp after the meeting.
We started the tour out back. Worked our way frontward, through the rescue office, vet rooms, cattery, into the kennel in what had been the gym of the Lake Castle School. Listening politely to the litany of duties and chores, waiting for time to disengage and head back east.
Then I met a black and white Pit Bull.
A month later I finally hit the road home.
I think one of the hardest days; we went in that vet clinic where the eleven people died. Eleven people that stayed with the animals died there. It was a huge building, and eleven people stayed with the animals there, and they all died. You saw all these (painted) marks that were made, and you saw the numbers like “11 dead”, and you knew those were people, and all of those people drowned with all those animals. We went there, and that’s where you saw something you read about and it went “BAM!”
The first couple nights I stayed in the back of my truck, and it was miserable. I stayed up typing on the computer ‘till nearly four o’clock in the morning each night because you couldn’t sleep; to lie down you just sweated. If you closed up the back of the truck it was too hot, and if you opened it up you had the mosquitoes. It was funny, because after about four of five days the military came in with the low flying, huge planes, and they were like crop dusting, they were spraying for the mosquitoes. I don’t know what they sprayed, but overnight the mosquitoes were gone! Just gone! And they stayed gone for a long time.
When I actually got into New Orleans the first thing that struck me was the devastation. Unbelievable-I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that Mother Nature could do this. There was nothing-there was just silence! There were no cars, there were no lights, there was just silence. The only time I had ever experienced that before was years ago, when I lived in Miami and we had riots, and they closed down I-95; it was totally closed down. I was up in Hollywood, or Ft. Lauderdale or someplace, and I had to drive back home to Miami, and I’m the only car on I-95, and I can see the smoke burning in the background from the fires that the rioters lit. And I had a flashback to that; it was really weird, but it was just so desolate and silent. The silence was-there were no trucks, no traffic, on these expressways where there should have been lots of stuff. That was the first thing that hit me, just the starkness and the desolation and the quiet of it.
The first thing was the highways. I was on I-10 and there was just nothing on the highway. Just no traffic whatsoever. That was very sci-fi, like “Logan’s Run” or Neville Shute’s “On the Beach”. It definitely had that feeling. It was right about sunset, and looking into New Orleans and there were no lights on at all, you could just see the shapes of the buildings even though there should have been lights just beginning to come on-but there was nothing.
I had seen Andrew, so I think before I even got over the bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, the little community just north of the bridge there, between Slidell and Lake Ponchartrain, the community there was a lot more hurricane damage, and that’s always a lot more dramatic than flood. Those two things: The highway images and no traffic on these massive highways. The whole thing was so weird, you would drive past huge buildings, empty, with nothing but rubble and abandoned cars.
I think for me, the turning point was when I saw a pavilion that had been erected next to a church that had been basically blown down by the storm. It said “Church services open”, but there were people walking away with boxes of supplies and food. At that point I knew that this was something really huge that I was experiencing, really life changing. I couldn’t believe that I was there; it was one thing seeing it on the TV, and another thing experiencing it.
The TV reports, I think they did a pretty good job (presenting the situation), but I think that once I got down there it was worse. I think they really tried, especially CNN, to convey exactly what it was like, but when you were down there, and the devastation was 360 degrees around you, and not just like in a twenty-four inch screen in front of you, the sense of it was just so much different-it’s so overwhelming.
I remember being in the boat, and the boat being in disarray, with as many dog kennels as we could stack in it, a ton of dogs, dogs barking-it seemed like there were dogs everywhere. And bottles of Purell (skin sanitizer). We didn’t know what we were getting into with the water, so every time it (the water) came in contact with our skin we were constantly washing. And then the military-seeing the military everywhere, and not much else. Those are the images. And the darkness. At night it was black, and there was no light anywhere.
I was pretty much overwhelmed from the moment I got there. The cat died in my car on my very first day. So I was overwhelmed pretty much from the beginning. Down in the Ninth Ward-this is the case that went out of my head until I was driving out of New Orleans, ‘cause I couldn’t process it-somebody had a cat, who they loved very much, and they put her in a carrier, and they took her out to where they were going to load the car, and somebody forgot to put her in the car. The cat drowned. The car was gone, but you know how it is when you are in a hurry and loading, and your think everything is in the car, and you don’t double check to see if the cat is actually in the car, and you are twenty minutes or half an hour down the road when you notice, and what do you do? How do you ever make that OK for yourself?
For me, that was the hardest thing, ‘cause I’m not a people person-I hate people-but for that one person, they left their cat to die: not even like they abandoned their cat, but they passed her up with the intention of taking her, they just forgot her. They obviously cared about that cat, they loved that cat. How do you ever make that OK? That cat died a horrible death, and was terrified the whole time expecting they would come home. So did so many animals. That image really haunts me.