Last Saturday marked the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the most far-reaching natural disaster in our nation’s history.
Before August 23rd, 2005, few of New Orleans’ 455,000 residents probably gave a thought to the consequences of living below sea level. And many families living with pets had no idea just how important those pets were to them.
But they would soon find out.
We all thought the worst was over once the storm swept its mighty arms east of the Louisiana peninsula. Initial news reports seemed promising: the carnage could be minimal.
But there was no calm after the storm for the Big Easy. On August 29th, water levels in 80% of the city rose swiftly after the levees broke under intense gusts of wind and Katrina's storm surge.
People scrambled to rooftops, their most precious cargo in tow: cats, dogs, birds and bunnies – all manner of companions with a beating heart and trusting soul.
Helicopters swarmed the sunken areas. Boats trolled the streets turned into rivers. The evacuation had begun. But the expressions of many residents turned from relief to horror when rescuers told them they would have to leave their pets behind. The coast guard and other rescue agencies were in the people – not animal – saving business.
Convinced that they would be able to return after the waters receded – a few days at most – some residents chose, with heavy hearts, to leave without their pets. On the other hand, about half of all pet owners refused to leave without their pets. Many died. It has been estimated that over 100,000 pets were left to fend for themselves.
In a drier part of town, Charlotte Bass Lilly and her husband had fended off looters, piled into their vehicle, and – along with their eight dogs –beat it out of town. They passed a security checkpoint by telling the guards that they were veterinarians evacuating their clinic.
The couple eventually joined thousands of other displaced people and a trickle of rescued pets at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzalez, AZ, about 60 miles northwest of New Orleans. Tearful residents, separated from their pets when the Red Cross and local hotels turned them away, had converged on Lamar-Dixon for any possible news on their pet’s fate.
Bass Lilly was determined to reclaim as many of Katrina’s displaced pets as possible. Having procured an animal control vehicle to maneuver about a city under “lock-down,” Bass Lilly drove back to New Orleans’ deserted and submerged neighborhoods, calling out to the animals. Many answered, were found and then brought back to Lamar-Dixon to be tended to by vets.
Each morning Bass Lilly set out from the Expo and each night she returned with a truckload of orphaned fur-kids. Eventually, a caravan of vets and volunteers joined her in the daily search and rescue. By then, the stagnant collection of water, dirt, sewage and gasoline in submerged parishes had distilled into a blackened cesspool that came to be known as “toxic gumbo.”
Bass Lilly was not deterred. She launched a boat she’d hitched to her “official” vehicle into the murky waters and reclaimed an additional 500 pets from rooftops, attics and floating refuse. After the waters receded, Bass Lilly and her army began setting up feeding and watering stations throughout a 200-square-mile area in hopes that surviving animals could find sustenance.
The massive rescue effort evolved into Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO) with Bass Lilly at the helm. All-tolled, 15,000 pet companions were salvaged from Katrina. More that 8,000 of those were either re-united with their families or adopted out to families in the U.S. ARNO was at the forefront of the Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) movement for feral cats and has rescued countless dogs from high-kill shelters and found them homes across the country.
But the most durable legacy of Bass Lilly and ARNO was the paradigm shift that occurred following compelling testimony by bereaved pet parents before the Louisiana State Legislature at Baton Rouge in 2006. Then senator, Huelette “Clo” Fontenot, proposed changes to the state’s official disaster policy that would ensure accommodations for families with pets fleeing a disaster. The state senate approved the Pet Evacuation Bill that was signed into law by then governor, Kathleen Blanco.
Later that year, the U.S. Senate followed suit and passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act with overwhelming bi-partisan support. If there’s one thing that legislators on both sides of the aisle could agree on, it was the fact that pets were more than mere property – they were family, just like you and me.
For the animal rescue movement, Katrina’s wake was infinitely more powerful than her winds.
Read more about the effects of Hurricane Katrina in Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs by David Grimm