August 23, 2015

Hurricane Katrina

by Windi Wojdak, RVT – Director, HSVMA-RAVS


With major relief and recovery efforts in two states – Louisiana and Mississippi – and tens of thousands of displaced residents, the need for responders and volunteers in the aftermath of Katrina was unprecedented. The need for rescuers quickly surpassed the availability of trained responders and established volunteer deployment systems. At the same time, individuals around the country watching events unfold in the media, unable to sit idle, were moved to get involved in any way they could. From the first news reports of the destruction, veterinarians and veterinary technicians from around the country began reaching out to offer their support and their services.

Filling the Veterinary Need

As the desperate need became clear, Rural Area Veterinary Service became the primary point of deployment for veterinary personnel. Within days we had our first veterinary teams on the ground in Mississippi, followed shortly by teams in Louisiana. Shelter management personnel coordinated efforts to organize field rescue, housing, feeding and general animal care. Meanwhile, the HSVMA-RAVS veterinary team went to work assessing the emergency sheltering facility and expected treatment needs; receiving and organizing donated supplies to set up a triage center and establishing protocols for animal intake, veterinary evaluation and ongoing animal care.

Over the next several weeks we received more than 1,300 volunteer applications and hundreds more inquiries and offers of support. From September 5 to October 20, more than 450 veterinary volunteers were deployed through RAVS to four primary facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana. Volunteers from around the U.S. and Canada took time off work, gathered supplies and other donations, purchased plane tickets, loaded their vehicles, and journeyed into the unknown to rescue and care for over 8,000 animals in need.

RAVS Hurricane Katrina Disaster Response

Creativity, Adaptability, and Indomitable Spirit

As the chaotic events unfolded, volunteers jumped into their assignments fueled by fierce compassion and unwavering dedication. Many of these volunteers had no prior disaster response experience, but learned quickly and worked endlessly at whatever needed to be done. Nothing was routine. Situations and needs changed day to day, sometimes hour to hour. From parking lot rescue centers to a makeshift prison shelter, creativity, adaptability and an indomitable spirit were the hallmarks of successful volunteers. Working from early in the morning until late into the night under often brutal physical and emotional conditions, volunteers recovered animals from damaged homes and streets, examined, decontaminated, vaccinated and microchipped them, cleaned kennels, organized records and supplies, walked dogs and did their best to provide comfort to the thousands of traumatized animals being rescued.

In the best moments of the response, cohesive teams of skilled and compassionate individuals worked together to make a difference for thousands of animals. In the worst moments, we were all outmatched by the scope of the need and even our best could not possibly be enough.

There is so much to be said about Hurricane Katrina and the various rescue efforts mounted in her wake. So many incredible people responded during those hard months; each with a unique experience and perspective. Most of us were changed in some way by what we witnessed and experienced. Many of us left a piece of our hearts behind when we left the storm-ravaged coast and made our way back to our daily lives, knowing there was still so much more to be done. The experiences and memories, both horrible and heartwarming, will live with each of us forever.

Surviving After the Storm

There are as many perspectives on those weeks as there are people who lived them. Within every story of devastation and grief is also a story of survival. When I listen to the reflections of fellow responders, what I hear at the core of each of them is their resilience—resilience in the face of seemingly unbearable devastation and trauma. The astounding resilience of individual human and animal survivors, of compassionate and dedicated volunteers, of communities determined to rebuild and of a society that learned many hard lessons.

In honor of lives lost, lives saved and lives changed, we offer our deepest respect and gratitude to all who gave something of themselves to this effort.

Four RAVS responders recall their Hurricane Katrina experiences»