Approximately 1,200 Pets Reunited With Owners
American Humane Association’s Red Star Animal Emergency Services™ team returned home on Sept. 9, 2008 after successfully helping to shelter, care for and ultimately reunite about 1,200 animals with their owners in response to Hurricane Gustav.
American Humane Association was part of a collaborative animal emergency response team helping the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART) in animal sheltering and reunification at two locations: a Mega-Shelter in Shreveport and a reunification site in New Orleans. We also worked in Baton Rouge, where our search-and-rescue teams conducted sweeps to ensure that no animals were caught in harm’s way, and in Terrebonne Parish, where we worked with the local animal shelter to locate and care for a handful of pets left behind during the evacuation.
Across all operations, we have partnered with many other national animal welfare organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Noah’s Wish, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA SPCA), the Humane Society of Missouri and the Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter.
American Humane Association’s senior director of Animal Emergency Services, Debrah Schnackenberg, is filing reports from the scene.
I thought that yesterday’s entry would be my last but I wanted to relay to you something that happened to me today as I reached the airport in Baton Rouge to board my flight.
The woman at the ticket counter thanked me for coming to Louisiana to help the animals. As did a security person. As did the screener who passed my bags through the machine. Each of these people made me feel increasingly humble -- they have been through a lot and yet they are gracious and kind to strangers.
The topper was the petite woman who took my cash at the counter where I bought a bottle of water. She said to me, “ I don’t understand people like you who come down here to help people you don’t even know. I just don’t understand you. But I think you are all angels in disguise.”
My eyes were wet as I boarded my flight home.
Everyone at the Big Truck was up bright and early this morning. At 7:30 a.m. our team attended a meeting with the Terrebonne Animal Shelter’s manager, Valerie Robinson, and her staff. We plotted out our day and the Red Star team loaded dog and cat food as well as copious amounts of fresh water onto all of our vehicles. All of Terrebonne’s shelter animals were successfully evacuated last week so currently there are only three dogs in the entire shelter. Everyone here is overdue for their “animal fix” so as we loaded supplies and we passed by the kennels everyone took the opportunity to visit with the three friendly dogs there, tails wagging, who were intensely curious about all the activity going on.
Soon, with plan and supplies in hand the teams headed out. Terrebonne Parish naturally divides itself into east, middle and west sectors. Between three teams we covered the entirety of Terrebonne Parish -- the rural west side, the urban center and the five bayou “fingers” of the east side. We found remarkably few animals running loose and only a couple of houses where animals were in need of feeding because their owners had not yet returned home. Once again I was struck by what this indicated about the success of the combined human/pet evacuations we conducted earlier this week.
But we did set out a few feeding stations -- which the shelter workers will visit and maintain over the next week until all the residents of Terrebonne have returned home. We brought in only 3 or 4 sick dogs that required some attention -- confirmation that the rumors being put out on the Internet about the plight of Terrebonne are greatly exaggerated.
Confident that all was well, we gave hugs all around with our new friends in Terrebonne and determined that the Red Star Team could begin to demobilize. Back at the Big Truck, we debriefed, and for the first time in days, everyone took off their blue uniforms, kicked off their field boots, shirts and caps, and lounged in shorts and t-shirts on our camp folding chairs. The atmosphere was light -- tomorrow we will book flights for staff and responders to return home.
The Big Truck, meanwhile, will pull out to stage somewhere out of range of incoming Hurricane Ike.
We will remain on standby to return to Louisiana or Texas if they call us. We have a tired but happy crew of responders who have done just a remarkable job in the past week and a half.
We’ve helped shelter around 1,200 pets, provided their owners with both physical and emotional support during the long days of the evacuation, and then had the pleasure of offloading pets back in New Orleans knowing that we were closing the circle -- reuniting the pets and their families and sending them home together. We’ve assisted the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART) with damage assessments that allowed LSART to put the right resources in the right places. We’ve helped our Parish partners with direct assistance and training.
While no one ever wishes for a hurricane like Gustav, we close this response up and I close this blog up with a huge sense of satisfaction -- knowing that both before and after Gustav, the responders of the Red Star team were needed. We were there for the people and the animals of Louisiana who are now headed home after Gustav together -- unlike after Katrina, when many returned without their pets.
Today we spent the morning requisitioning cat and dog food and water for our effort down in Terrebonne. With that in progress, the Red Star Team gassed up our vehicles, packed up the Big Truck and in caravan made our migration to Houma. The Parish was good enough to give us a parking lot at the Terrebonne Recreation Center to use for staging the Big Truck. The Recreation Center suffered wind and water damage during Gustav and is closed so we have been granted the run of the place.
Before the Big Truck could be parked both the Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter employees and the Red Star team walked every square inch of the gravel lot, picking up nails, torn pieces of metal and the jigsaw puzzle pieces of insulated roofing that filled the lot. It wouldn’t do to get a flat tire on the Rescue Rig here!
Arriving in the afternoon, we set up camp (and with 11 staff and responders it is definitely a “camp”) and met with Valerie Robinson, the manager of the Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter, to lay out our plan for feeding and watering animals left behind during the evacuation. Then it was off to much needed showers, a dinner from the Red Cross and that wonderful thing called “sleep.” It will be an early day tomorrow as we will start work with a meeting at the shelter at 7:30 a.m.
A change of plans and we are not being asked to unload the Jefferson Parish pets -- the National Guard is going to assist with that job. That’s good because it gives the Red Star Team a chance to get some rest.
In the meantime the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART) has asked me to do an assessment of the needs of Terrebonne Parish. As Terrebonne Parish and American Humane Association have had the pleasure of a relationship for the past two years while we worked on an memorandum of understanding (MOU) between us, and I was delighted to say yes!
Kerri Burns, the training manager for Animal Emergency Services, and I took off and spent a large part of the day driving, meeting with Valerie Robinson, the Terrebonne Animal Shelter manager, and driving around to do observation. Upon our arrival we first went to the location of the PetSmart Rescue Truck. There we found 3 very hard-working, hot and tired PetSmart volunteers who had just finished giving out an entire semi truckload of donated items to the citizens of Terrebonne Parish, who are just returning home today.
From there Kerri and I drove to Valerie’s home, where we had a good meeting about the needs for the Parish and its families and animals over the next few days. At the end of our discussion it was clear that the priority concern would be to locate and feed “in place” any pets that may have been left behind in the evacuation. If we can keep them fed until their families arrive home they should be in good shape. Terrebonne has a good amount of wind damage but little flooding. The areas that Kerri and I drove through had no loose animals or unexpected levels of destruction.
There is a lot of erroneous information going around on the Internet about how bad it is down in Terrebonne and Houma. There is no doubt that the Terrebonne folks will need a hand to get back on their feet -- but it is not the crisis that some of the emails and blogs are saying it is. They do not have electricity yet, but gas stations are open and this week stores will begin to open.
On our departure, Valerie asked if we would return the next day to help her and her staff set up a “feed and water in place” program for the Parish. We advised that we would be delighted to do so as their MOU partner.
With that we drove the 2 hours back to Baton Rouge to report to our LSART partners. They have blessed our desire to go assist our Parish partner so tomorrow we will pack up the Big Truck and the Red Star Team and move down to Houma for several days of work!
The Red Star Emergency Services™ team returned to the Baton Rouge staging area tired but happy with how well things went overnight transporting and offloading animals back to Orleans Parish. I sent the team off to get breakfast and some much-needed sleep -- we have been asked to unload the pets of Jefferson Parish at 5:00 p.m. tonight!
Wow! What a night on the Big Truck! We had nearly a full house, sleeping 10 responders in the dormitory that the truck becomes at night. Sleeping was interrupted by a huge rainstorm that rocked and battered the truck all night. However, we were all pretty cozy in our bunks and sleeping bags. We awoke to find that the Agriculture offices had standing water once again in the large foyer -- after the contractors spent all of yesterday vacuuming water up from the previous flooding and everything had just barely started to dry. Big generators run continuously all day -- there is still no power in most of Baton Rouge.
What a busy day! With many assessments complete, the state has begun the process of opening the parishes back up to their citizens. The evacuation process now begins to run in reverse. Families that boarded buses and pets that boarded the big semi-trucks will have to do the same again -- this time headed south. The Shreveport sheltering teams from American Humane Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Noah’s Wish begin the hard work of getting pets ready to go on trucks today. The first pets and people will be headed out to New Orleans. The entire day is spent cross-checking paperwork, making sure that the animals are loaded back on to the big trucks with everything they need to be successfully reunited with their families tomorrow in New Orleans.
It will be so sad to say goodbye to these dogs, cats and other pets we have come to care for over the past few days. The young Lab who wags his tail fiercely when you walk by, the little Pomeranian who came to this shelter sitting in his elderly owner’s lap all those long 12 hours up from the south to safety. But it’s so busy getting the animals and owners on their way, the team barely has time to think about the fact that they are leaving. They reassure owners while they watch their pets loaded on the truck -- “Soon you’ll be home and they’ll be with you” -- and smile to see the relief on faces that haven’t seen their homes for days.
The first of the big animal trucks left Shreveport at 4:30 p.m. today followed by several more, headed south and ultimately home.
Meanwhile, down in Baton Rouge the Red Star animal rescue team has helped conduct additional assessments and prepared for the possible rescue of several horses from a flooded area east of Baton Rouge where the water has been rising all day.
Late in the day the entire Baton Rouge contingent headed to the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA SPCA) in New Orleans. Remember that line of big pet trucks that left Shreveport this afternoon and evening? Well, we met those trucks in New Orleans tonight around midnight and along with our friends at the LA SPCA and the Humane Society of Missouri we began the offloading and overnight care of about 270 animals through the wee hours until morning. Before the trucks rolled in crates were set up, water bowls were filled, fans were positioned in the humid night and we were ready.
Offloading of the trucks went like clockwork and without a hitch. The pets will spend the night and following day at LA SPCA while their owners ride their own buses south, and away from the crowding and chaos of the temporary emergency evacuation shelters.
Tomorrow the people of New Orleans and Orleans Parish will be reunited with their pets after 4 long days living in emergency sheltering. They will have survived the hurricane together -- and will be going home together. Imagine that! These families didn’t have to make a choice between leaving their pets and evacuating to remain safe or staying with the animals they love and remaining in harm’s way. They left together -- and tomorrow many of them will be going home together. And over the next few days, the reunification will continue with all the remaining parishes until, we hope, all are home safe again.
The Louisiana Search and Rescue Team (LSART) staging is a hum of activity this morning. The Red Star animal search-and-rescue team members are arriving from all over the nation and we begin assisting with the large effort of conducting assessments of the harder hit areas.
Some parishes have relatively little damage. Others are going to take longer to assess due to debris blockages and flooding. It’s hard to know what, if any, search and rescue will be needed at this point. But early indications are that New Orleans has been spared the worst and other parishes don’t have the damage we feared they would have. We have sporadic reports of animals in need, but welfare checks show nothing like what was experienced after Katrina. I chalk that up to the massive and successful effort to move families and their animals north. Instead of remaining in these harder hit areas, they all moved safely to shelters such as the one in Shreveport -- something that was unimaginable just 3 short years ago!
The remnant of Hurricane Gustav hit Baton Rouge in the evening last night. Extremely high winds and rain were predicted -- but it would seem that Gustav has run its course. While the rain comes down in sheets, the wind is much less than predicted and we are all grateful for that.
Overnight the night shift at the Mega-Shelter kept diligent watch over their charges -- putting out plastic sheeting or moving crates in the few areas of the barn where the rain came through. They stayed up all night, watching the TV for tornado warnings, listening for the weather radio alarms and taking care of the needs of the dogs, cats, snake, lizards, hamsters and rabbits who were riding the storm out with them.
Dawn broke on a very wet day and the day crew and the night crew met for a debriefing/briefing with cups of hot coffee, tired smiles and high fives -- we’d all survived Hurricane Gustav together!
As the night shift heads out to get some food and rest the day crew opens up the shelter, getting ready for owners to visit their pets. And even though it is pouring rain, the owners do brave the crossing of the street between the human shelter and the animal shelter to see and care for their animals.
Our wonderful grassy area where folks can walk their dogs is now a swamp so we’ve set up indoor areas where the animals can be walked. A couple of indoor arenas where livestock usually show off their best now look like little mini-dog parks with owners and dogs walking and chatting.
I’m packed and ready to go -- I’ve been asked to come down to Baton Rouge to where the Louisiana State Animal Rescue Team (LSART) has their EOC operations and to bring in a team of Red Star Animal Search and Rescue staff and volunteers. LSART has asked us to stage there together with our friends from IFAW to await possible search-and-rescue assignments.
The American Humane Association Big Truck has moved from North Carolina, where it had been supporting our response to assist Lincoln County with a large hoarding/puppy mill seizure -- and arrived last night at the staging area in Baton Rouge during the tail end of Hurricane Gustav’s passing. I call Connor, our Big Truck program manager, to assure that he arrived safely and has had a good night’s sleep. He lets me know that all is well -- but that the drive into Baton Rouge was dark and tricky -- apparently most of Baton Rouge is without power and this morning the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry building where we are staging is flooded.
I head out for Baton Rouge, leaving behind the hardworking Red Star sheltering team in Shreveport -- but not before I go around and say goodbye to the wonderful LSART folks we have been working with, and to Iris, the animal control officer who has been assigned to us. She has been so wonderful and I will miss her warm presence and humor in what has been a very stressful situation.
All the long drive to Baton Rouge I listen to a lone radio station out of Alexandria that is running on a generator it would appear that most of Louisiana from Shreveport on down to Baton Rouge is almost completely without power. As I get closer to Lafayette and then to Baton Rouge the impact of Gustav is apparent. Trees snapped off everywhere. Highway signs broken off and lying flat on the ground. Broken branches everywhere. No gas stations open to get gasoline, no stores open to get food. When I get to Baton Rouge the intersections are flooded. Arriving at LSART staging I find that the LSART Team has temporarily moved their EOC activities from the flooded and dark Agriculture building to the Command Center of the American Humane Big Truck, where they have electricity, air conditioning and Internet access!
I check in with the folks in Shreveport and all is well.
It’s Labor Day, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a holiday for anyone here. Overnight, we had another 390 animals come into the shelter by semi-truck. The night-shift staff and volunteers truly conducted a heroic effort in the darkness. As the animals are unloaded from the trucks, the staff comfort the owners, check paperwork, and supply the animals and people with water and kind words. We all feel for the evacuees. It’s got to be scary to arrive in the dark after an exhausting and chaotic day and know that you are going into a shelter full of other evacuees who are as tired and exhausted as you.
That was the last of the evacuation trucks. Today, we have capacity for a small additional number of “walk in” pets for people who have self-evacuated with their animals. We will take them in as we can. [Note: Later that afternoon, the human and pet shelters were at full capacity, and we were taking no new animals].
We get sporadic reports of the hurricane damage during the day, as the storm moves towards us here in Shreveport. The pet owners move through the shelter constantly. They come to take their pets out for walks. Outside the main door, we have a grassy area set aside for them with picnic tables and shaded awnings. The owners and their pets walk, sit in the shade, play with pull toys. I see such a contrast between the pet owners and the other evacuees. The people without pets sit in front of the human shelter -- their faces are often filled with sadness and fatigue. The people who come over to spend time with their pets seem to have more bounce in their step, they laugh and talk to their animals, they hug them close. Sometimes they even cry. But, as one owner told me, with tears in his eyes, “I’m just so happy that you all are doing this for us. I’d be lost with out my little guy here. He’s like my child.” I pat him on the shoulder and tell him that we are so glad to be here and to be able to help, and then I turn away to move on to my next chore with my own eyes welling up. All of these folks are so grateful, and they are wonderful in their attitudes. No one would blame them if they were cranky or short tempered, but they are overwhelmingly positive and gracious. I know without a doubt that their ability to be with their animals through all of this makes a tremendous difference in how they are coping with their own hardships. Having people be able to evacuate with their pets, and having the human shelter and animal shelter be co-located like this, were positive lessons that were learned from Hurricane Katrina.
By the end of the day, our official count was 1,003 animals in our shelter. We have dogs, cats, snakes, lizards, hamsters, parrots and rabbits. We have puppies and kittens. It’s raucous but, surprisingly, not as loud as you’d expect. There’s a little chaos, but it’s a wonderfully controlled chaos. This Mega-Shelter is truly working, and in ways both expected and unexpected. The smiles on the faces of the people and the peacefulness of the sleeping animals tell me that without words.
By evening, the weather signaling the approach of Hurricane Gustav has begun to hit us. We have rain and wind swelling as the night shift comes on and the day shift, exhausted, goes to get some food and sleep.
We began deploying to Shreveport, La., on Aug. 29 to begin preparations to shelter thousands of pets evacuated with their human families from coastal Louisiana towns, as forecasters’ projections for Hurricane Gustav placed the Bayou State directly in its path.
Evacuees and their pets began streaming in shortly after -- smaller pets traveled on their owners’ laps as they rode buses for a 12-hour trip through heavy traffic from New Orleans, and larger animals began arriving after midnight by tractor-trailer. By 9 a.m. Sunday, more than 400 animals -- mostly cats, dogs and bird -- were being housed in the shelter. The state has established the Mega-Shelter to co-locate pets near their human families.
The people are grateful and can’t thank us enough for being here to help with their animals. The evacuation out of New Orleans has turned into a flood of its own. I don’t know how many people I have heard say (through tears in their eyes) that, after Hurricane Katrina, they thought they would never have to go through this again -- that they couldn’t bear to lose another pet.
The people are exhausted and are required to check in at the Red Cross shelter next door to us. We do our best to assure them that we have their pets and that we will take good care of them until the owners get their paperwork finished.
Last night we were brought a litter of very little puppies. The owner couldn’t find their mother before he evacuated, and the puppies are alone. The volunteers bottle-fed these little guys in the wee hours of the morning -- hoping to save their small lives -- while the big trucks kept rolling in with more animals.
We split into two 12-hour shifts yesterday, running a day shift and a night shift in order to cover the growing wave of evacuees -- all wanting to be assured that their animals will be taken care of until they can go back home.
Since my arrival at 6 a.m., it has been busy and chaotic. Big 18-wheelers keep pulling up to the barn door with animals to be unloaded. Their owners are right behind them, so their pets can be tagged and registered. Meanwhile, self-evacuated people are pulling up in a steady stream of cars to drop off their pets while they find a place to stay.
The relative quiet of yesterday is gone. It’s been replaced by the sound of big trucks, barking dogs, voices of volunteers, staff and owners.
After a short night, we headed out to the Fairgrounds. After our morning briefings we were assigned our unit. We have Unit 2 of the Dog Shelter. Our neighbors in Unit 1 are Noah’s Wish, and our neighbors in Unit 3 are one of our National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition (NARSC) partners, the ASPCA.
We spent the morning setting up the arrangement of kennels, record keeping tables and supplies. It was a beautiful sunny morning here in Shreveport, but by noon the temperature was already in the mid-90s and very humid.
We learned that our friends and NARSC partner HSUS will be arriving today with a sheltering team. We’re looking forward to working with them again.
For now we are holding the American Humane Association 82-foot-long “Rescue Rig” in North Carolina, where we have been assisting Lincoln County with the seizure and sheltering of hundreds of animals from a private residence. Once we know where Hurricane Gustav will most likely make landfall, we will move the Rescue Rig to be closer, but still safe from the weather, ready to assist with land and floodwater rescue, should the State of Louisiana ask for our help.
It is 2 p.m. as I file this report, and the shelter is quiet except for the sound of pallet tractors moving supplies and Shelter Unit Safety Officers giving briefings. I am enjoying this relative quiet and the laughter of everyone here, as they prepare for the animals because, in just a few hours, the dogs will start arriving and it’s anyone’s guess when this huge livestock barn will be quiet again.
Today is the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and American Humane Association was invited to speak at the dedication of the Katrina Animal Memorial in New Orleans. I drove into New Orleans yesterday evening along with Kelley Weir of our public relations staff and pointed out to her the houses that now sport new roofs where, a year ago, many still wore their blue tarps -- their roofing protection in the wake of Katrina.
I spent a good deal of that drive comparing how it looks now to how it looked 2 years ago and last year. Each year has brought a little more healing, and I couldn’t help but worry and wonder how this might all look a week from now, if Hurricane Gustav hits this area. The people of the Gulf Coast have been through so much, and now they may have more to deal with very soon. I’m only glad that we can be here, again to help them out if we are needed.
This morning’s memorial dedication was wonderful, with the presence of so many of the people and agencies who had put so many long hours into rescuing and sheltering animals into those days and weeks after Katrina.
But the sense was also tense -- every single person in the ballroom during the luncheon was waiting to see what Hurricane Gustav will do. Today, the projections point it a little west of New Orleans -- a bad projection as that puts NOLA in that infamous upper-right quadrant of devastation. The estimated landfall is Monday or Tuesday. We have 2 or 3 days at the most to prepare, so, at the conclusion of the luncheon, many of the attendees rushed off to continue their hurricane preparations.
I headed for Shreveport, where an American Humane Red Star Animal Emergency Services team is flying in today to assist the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART) with setting up and staffing the Mega-Shelter there. The Mega-Shelter is a co-located shelter where evacuee’s from the coastal parishes and from New Orleans will have their animals housed while they can live in a human shelter nearby. This is such a change from 3 years ago, when people were told they could not evacuate their pets with them. We have progressed -- as I’m sure we will continue to do after this is all over.