August 23, 2015

Hurricane Katrina

More than 450 volunteers— including veterinarians, veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, veterinary students—deployed with HSVMA-RAVS in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These are the accounts of four veterinary professionals who responded with RAVS.

"I spent a week in Louisiana, but it felt like a year..."

"I would do it again today if I had to..." – Q&A with Katrina RAVS Responders

I spent a week in Louisiana, but it felt like a year...
by Linda Rollins, Veterinary Assistant/Rescue Volunteer – Shelburne Falls, MA

I spent a year in Gonzales, LA the last week of September 2005. At least, that’s what it felt like—a year.

I was inexorably altered by my experiences with the HSVMA-RAVS team in New Orleans. In the midst of the huge volume of animals in need, most volunteers took on individual “pet” (pardon the pun) projects that gave a face to and humanized the inhumanity of the thousands of suffering animals we cared for. Mine was a wee, nondescript male tabby kitten in the ICU.

He looked just like a special needs kitten that I had at home. He’s the one that made me say, “I’ll take him home with me if he lives.” He was about 10 weeks old. I persuaded the VMAT (Veterinary Medical Assistance Team) vets to give him a transfusion; then another one, later that night. I tucked him in around midnight, and at 6 a.m., I went to check on him before we made a desperate run for coffee. He was sleeping and breathing quietly.

Twenty minutes later, we returned, and he was dead. Freshly dead. Still very warm. I cradled his tiny body in my arms and cried like a baby. I totally lost it over that little guy. I felt so guilty that I wasn’t there to hold him as he passed.


As I write this now, even ten years later, the tears fall like it was yesterday. The picture of me holding him appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, in full color.

It triggered an outpouring of kindness from strangers that left me (even more) stunned. An 84 year-old woman shut-in called me, crying, asking where she could send money. Cards from people I never met filled my mailbox.


Then I came home. Four weeks and one day after my return, I was coping… but, barely. I got home on a Tuesday and by Friday I had found myself at a trauma therapist.

I stayed inside for a week, crying every day. I heard the barking in my head for weeks. My dogs looked too fat. Too healthy. Too lucky. What did help me was staying in touch with others, staying involved, and devoting myself to the continued belief that one person can make a difference. And we did. Each and every one of us!

When I first arrived, amidst the chaos, I felt under-utilized for half a second, then quickly saw that there was always a need for something. I immersed myself in the ICU, home of such great joy and such great sorrow. I did nursing care for 16 hours a day.

I cried a lot, but when the tears began to flow, I looked at poor maimed, burned, starving desperate canine faces all around me who still managed a weak tail wag, or the cats who would finally rub their heads against your hand despite all the injustices they had suffered and survived (cats take everything so personally!), or finally took a bit of food on their own, and it made my own despair insignificant and surmountable.

The hardest thing I ever did was leave Gonzales on October 4. I was wracked with guilt for leaving before the end, but then realized that--even though the Lamar Dixon facility was closed 10 days later--we were not even close to the end.

During our time on the Gulf Coast and after our return, I urged fellow rescuers to celebrate the lives we touched, and saved, and to remember that the ones who died in our care, died in our care, receiving our love, with full bellies, and a gentle hand on their heads.

We did the very best we could.

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I would do it again today if I had to...
Q&A with Katrina RAVS Responders Heather Carter, LVT VTS (Anesthesia) of Rockville, MD and Sarah Hurley, CVT of Champaign, IL

During what time period were you helping with rescue/recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

Heather Carter: I was deployed to Hattiesburg, Miss. days after the hurricane hit.

Sarah Hurley: I arrived in September, about two weeks after the Hurricane.

When you traveled to Louisiana/Mississippi, were you sent by your employer/organization? Were you paid for your time? Did you use your vacation time/personal time/leave of absence/other unpaid time?

HC: This is a great question. I remember talking to Dr. Katherine Goldberg about the fact that we NEEDED to go help. Dr. Goldberg contacted Dr. Eric Davis (former director of HSVMA-RAVS) about responding, and I think she and I were on oiur way within a day or two. I barely asked permission from my job, but they were very amenable and even sent me with a large box of supplies! I’m sure I took vacation time, but I can’t remember for sure.

SH: I was a volunteer using my personal time. Although I work nearly full-time hours, I am a part-time employee at the college where I teach Veterinary Technology. Because of this, I only get a couple of personal/sick leave days, but I was able to stay longer because CVT colleagues at the college covered classes I teach without getting substitute pay.

At what location(s) did you spend most of your time doing rescue/recovery work?

HC: I spent one week in Hattiesburg, Miss.

SH: The Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Most of the animals were covered in what we termed “toxic goo...”

What rescue/recovery activities were you primarily performing?

HC: I primarily helped with exams on animals that were brought in at the end of the day. Trucks would spend the morning to evening searching for animals. They would arrive at the shelter in the early evening and we would examine, microchip, vaccinate and treat them before other volunteers would get them set up for the night.

SH: I initially responded with the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team and did some intake exams. While on site, I ran into a vet student that I had worked with on a RAVS trip. She let me know about other activities going on at the Expo Center, including a place where they were vaccinating and otherwise preparing animals to be shipped out to Houston and Petfinder, and they were looking for people who could input descriptions into their software. I also learned that there was no organization for the daily care of the dogs and cats being sheltered. Volunteers were just sent to work at one of the large barns and left to their own devices.

I spent the next couple days alternately working at Petfinder in a blissfully air-conditioned RV, and, when the generators caused the system to crash, doing basic animal care. I met a nice local woman who was helping with the cats, but had no veterinary training. She was excited to find someone who could handle the “mean” ones so their cages could get cleaned. Not my dream job, but good thinking on the part of this good-hearted layperson. I discovered that volunteers were taking individual cat dishes to the end of the barn and attempting to clean them with a pressure hose. I instituted the Girl Scout 3-bucket (soap, bleach, rinse) system and had them leave the dirty dishes and take clean ones. This simple thing was celebrated by the other volunteers as if I had invented the wheel. The lack of organization in those days was both astounding and dismaying. With about 5000 animals on the property and temperatures in the mid-90s, the task of caring for them was overwhelming.

When Dr. Eric Davis arrived we spent a day going around the property to find all the vets and vet techs, and asked them to meet us at 5 p.m. to make a plan to improve the situation. At that meeting, we got people to set up shifts to supervise volunteers sent to work at each of the barns full of animals. Others had specific work they were doing in shipping, rescue, or with VMAT. We found that there was a particular need for professionals to work at triage, and I worked on that for most of my remaining time. Rescuers would start bringing animals from New Orleans to the Expo center in the late afternoon, but triage of these arrivals lasted until about 3 a.m. Each animal was given a physical exam, paperwork describing the physical appearance and location where the animal was picked up was filled out, the animal was photographed and then sent either to a barn designated for general housing, to VMAT for treatment of serious injuries, or to a secure area for aggressive animals. Most of the animals were covered in what we termed “toxic goo,” and had to have the combination of oil, sewage, and other unidentified sludge washed off them prior to kenneling them.

Some of the dogs (almost all were intact pit bulls) had clearly been fighting dogs. Others were very freaked out by what they were going through. I teamed up with a couple of volunteers known as the “dog whisperers.” These talented trainers loved working with aggressive and defensive dogs and were able to calm them enough to approach. They appreciated my knowledge of animal behavior that allowed me to examine the dogs without scaring them again.

What kind of work were you doing at the time you began Hurricane Katrina relief work?

HC: Prior to leaving for Mississippi I was working at a specialty animal hospital.

SH: I was teaching in a veterinary technician program.

What kind of work are you doing now?

HC: I’m doing similar work but just on a larger scale.

SH: I'm still teaching.

Did your experiences around Hurricane Katrina influence/change the kind of work you do now?

HC: Every time I come back from any work with The HSUS/HSVMA it positively affects the work I do now. It keeps me humble and patient. I’m more able to tolerate “problems” that arise.

How did your professional skills and perspective help or hinder your Hurricane Katrina relief work?

HC: I think my veterinary skills were well-utilized while I was there. My skills allowed me to see the problems that these animals had been living with since the hurricane.

SH: Because of my shelter experience and field clinic experience as a RAVS volunteer, I was equipped to deal with the population of animals at hand and was used to making adjustments to accommodate the less-than-ideal conditions for veterinary work. I had been active in American Red Cross Disaster Services. I thought that training would be useful, but at the time I was in Baton Rouge, it was clear that the major players didn’t know how to set up an effective command structure, communication system, or how to supervise volunteers effectively. Initially, I was so overwhelmed by the need and lack of organization, that I was driven to tears.

What was your most memorable positive experience during your Hurricane Katrina relief work?

HC: I’m not sure how it occurred, but a separate organization was helping The HSUS and they were able to take several dogs to their shelter to house them while their owners were located. There were three dogs that were the most energetic and happy in the bunch they were taking. They named those dogs: Heather, Katherine, and Leo (after myself and Drs. Katherine Goldberg and Leo Egar) That made my heart melt.

SH: The best things were running into people who I had worked with on RAVS trips and networking with them to make things a little better while we were deployed.

I was definitely a changed person when I got home.

What was your worst experience during your Hurricane Katrina relief work?

HC: This is hard to answer. So much of it was tough. I specifically remember these three Chihuahuas that were brought in who were so scared. Petrified. They were very well cared for and this was by far the most horrifying thing that ever happened to them. It was heart-breaking to see them paralyzed with fear and the saddest part is that I heard that their house was destroyed and that likely one of their owners had died. I always wondered what happened to them.

I broke down at one point in the week and had to go outside and just cry. It was so overwhelming and constant. There were no breaks from it. I remember the National Guard having to escort us to and from the shelter. I remember not being able to shower because there were reports that there was a rapist on the loose who had assaulted someone in the women’s room. I was definitely a changed person when I got home.

SH: The living conditions were abysmal. I slept in a one-person tent pitched in a gravel parking lot. The ground was so packed, we used gallon bottles to hold down the tent ropes because we couldn’t get stakes into the ground. Even at night, it was in the 80s and very humid, and they came by and sprayed the whole area with insecticide each night. There were only two individual shower stalls available for hundreds of female volunteers. I would strip off and use a kennel hose to rinse off the toxic goo, then go to my tent at about 3 a.m. At 6 a.m., I would wake to traffic helicopters taking off from the adjacent helipad and sun beating down on me. No point in trying to sleep anymore!

One of my most interesting experiences was driving some volunteers into St. Bernard Parish to staff a “shelter” set up in a lumber yard by a veterinarian. The return trip was spooky. Mine was the only vehicle on an eight-lane highway full of craters and lined by abandoned belongings of residents fleeing the area. I drove really carefully – there was no help to be had if I broke down! It was a scene out of an apocalyptic movie.

Heather, you have done other rescue/recovery work since Hurricane Katrina. Can you tell us about that?

HC: I have deployed with The Humane Society of the United States to help with dog-fighting busts in several parts of the U.S., and I have also been deployed to help with a few hoarding cases.

Would you perform rescue/recovery work in the aftermath of another major hurricane or disaster?

HC: Absolutely. Immediately.

SH: Maybe. I think a lot was learned about disaster preparedness relating to animals from this event.

How did your experiences doing Hurricane Katrina relief work effect and/or change you as a person?

HC: It makes me want to continue to do field medicine and welfare work. I prefer to be in a makeshift shelter than a state-of-the-art operating room.

SH: I’m not sure...

What do you think is the lasting legacy of Hurricane Katrina on animals, and our society in general?

HC: I said to multiple people that the hurricane was probably the best thing that happened to a lot of those animals. Regarding society, I wonder if enough time has passed that people don’t think about it as much. I live in the Washington, DC-area, which wasn’t affected by the storm at all. I don’t think it’s on anyone’s radar here.

SH: It woke people in disaster relief up to the fact that animals need to be included in disaster planning. You can’t get many people to leave unless there is accommodation for their animals. Vet clinics and other animal facilities must have a disaster plan. It woke animal organizations up to the fact that you need advanced planning and controlled deployment of resources, and especially a plan to deal with animals after they have been removed from the disaster zone. The animal organizations also learned they had to consider how to provide for the basic needs of their disaster responders. Pet owners became more aware that they need to think about how to evacuate and the importance of having ID with current owner information on their pets.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share about your experience?

HC: Despite how stressful and sad it was, I would do it again today if I had to.

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You can read more details about my experiences doing rescue and recovery work in the Gulf Coast region in 2005 and 2006 on my website: New Orleans and Second Trip.

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