August 23, 2015

Hurricane Katrina:

After any disaster, there is a period of rebuilding. Even a decade later, parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. However, the disaster has created a few positive lasting legacies.

Dixon Correctional Institute: A Success Story

“When it comes to disaster preparedness, Louisiana is now a leader. This is a good legacy..."

Dixon Correctional Institute: A Success Story
Temporary Hurricane Shelter at Prison Now Full-Service Animal Facility
by Windi Wojdak, RVT – Director, HSVMA-RAVS

Dixon Correctional Institute inmates play with dogs in their care on the grounds of the medium security prison in Jackson, La. The inmates are part of a partnership with HSUS to help run the Pen Pal Inc. Dog & Cat Shelter and Adoption Center located at the prison.

Most RAVS-deployed volunteers were initially sent to one of the two primary sheltering facilities at Hattiesburg, Miss. or the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzalez, La.—the holding site for thousands of animals evacuated from New Orleans and surrounding areas. However, in the weeks after the storm, the temporary animal shelter at Lamar-Dixon had reached capacity with animals rescued from throughout the flooded region. Animals kept coming in though, and finding suitable sheltering became a major challenge. At that time officials at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, La. offered to assist by fostering displaced animals on prison property, which included 2,500 acres of land and several barns.

As Hurricane Rita loomed, the situation at Lamar-Dixon became urgent and animals were evacuated to other facilities. On September 22, then RAVS Director, Dr. Eric Davis, assembled a team of volunteers to transport the first round of animals – including 150 dogs and 52 chickens, ducks and geese – to DCI, where a team of two correctional officers from the prison’s canine unit and 10 inmates helped unload animals and supplies to set up the new temporary shelter. During the next three weeks, 45 cats and another 20 dogs were added at DCI. Volunteers and inmates cared for the animals there until they could be reunited with families or sent to other facilities for adoption. RAVS maintained staff at the DCI shelter through the end of October, at which time the dogs went to other shelters that could oversee the adoption process.

One of several lasting rays of light to shine in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that the success of the DCI emergency shelter encouraged prison officials to consider making the program permanent. Thanks to a $600,000 grant from The Humane Society of the United States and cooperation from the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, Dixon Correctional Institute is now the site of a permanent emergency evacuation facility and full-service animal shelter, with a fully equipped surgical suite, serving as the parish’s only animal shelter and holding facility for strays.

Read more about the continuing success of this program»

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When it comes to disaster preparedness… Louisiana is now a leader. This is a good legacy.
by Wendy Wolfson, DVM
Assistant Professor, Shelter Medicine & Surgery
Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine

I am from New Orleans. Prior to Katrina I worked for the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans for 20 years. Because of Hurricane Katrina, we lost our shelter. I lost my home and all my possessions due to flood waters. Many of my friends were scattered like seeds in the wind.

For two days prior to the storm, we made a concentrated effort to remove all 250 shelter animals to safe harbors and prepare private-sector animals for evacuation.

I heard shocking stories throughout each day of what was happening in my hometown, while still not knowing if I could return.

Two days after the storm, we started using Lamar-Dixon Center in Baton Rouge, La. as a shelter for animals rescued from storm areas. I worked there for one month doing primary veterinary care, getting animals transport-ready and treating ill animals. For the first three days I was the only veterinarian with fast growing numbers of animals. By Day 4, the amount of animals seemed overwhelming. It was hot, disorganized and full of sadness, seeing the agony of people looking for their lost pets. Hearing the stories of what they had gone through during the storm was horrible and mind-boggling. I heard shocking stories throughout each day of what was happening in my hometown, while still not knowing if I could return. The work at Lamar-Dixon was excruciatingly hard, but it kept my mind from dwelling on all I had lost and distressing over what the future would be. By Day 10 or 12 there were many more veterinarians from all over the United States to help us with the multitudes of lost pets. My work then seemed a little less overwhelming.

It wasn't just dogs and cats who needed treatment. Here, Dr. Colin Combs examines a rabbit at the Lamar-Dixon Center.
Carol Guzy

After six weeks at Lamar-Dixon, the LASPCA re-opened in a warehouse on the West Bank of New Orleans. I felt better to be back to my hometown and to once again be with my familiar coworkers. The nature of my job changed dramatically. I had to build and set up a veterinary clinic with a surgical area to treat the animals that were abandoned, injured, or stray. Many were given away since owners had lost their homes. Our team put together this new animal shelter in a huge warehouse without heat or air conditioning. It was desperately needed to house and treat hundreds of animals who had been displaced. Starvation, mange, and heartworm disease seemed magnified 100 times. I spayed and neutered hundreds of cats in order to return them to neighborhoods that had been flooded and abandoned. Feeders were assigned to these areas, hoping to reduce the numbers of cats that would be euthanized in the shelter or die from starvation. I stayed at this location with the LASPCA for the next 14 months, until I accepted my current job at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

I have been with LSU for the last eight years. This job has been an incredible experience. The workplace environment is so different than Japonica Street in New Orleans. This is mostly a good thing, but the shelter on Japonica was an amazing place—I will not ever doubt that. There are so many things I still miss. But this job is a great opportunity to bring shelter medicine to the veterinary masses—so to speak. Due to the generosity of The Humane Society of the United States and the open-mindedness of the LSU Veterinary School, I was able to start a shelter program from the ground up (The HSUS and HSVMA continue to support the program). I have been using my previous shelter experiences to help bring change to Louisiana shelters. Being in the trenches of animal welfare for 20 years gave me a lot of insight into what shelters and shelter workers need to be successful in their goals of reducing euthanasia and providing a good quality of life for shelter animals. I know how hard the work is; no one can tell me that I don’t know what it is like working in a shelter. My current job allows me to initiate change within many shelters which has the potential to positively affect thousands of animals. The numerous courses in our veterinary school dealing with shelter medicine are now opening student minds to the possibilities of working and volunteering in animal shelters. What could be better?

Preparation is the key to success.

I still help shelters with disaster work. Our school is very proactive with relief efforts and our students are taught that preparation is the key to success. Since Katrina, the state of Louisiana has changed many ideas about animal evacuation policies. When it comes to disaster preparedness and animal-friendly laws, Louisiana is now a leader. This is a good legacy.

My most memorable positive experiences were the large numbers of veterinarians and veterinary students I met who offered assistance. I still run into people who say, “We met at Lamar-Dixon.” I have no memories of individual faces or experiences, but rather an overall feeling of gratefulness of how kind, generous and helpful people were, even though they were strangers.

To think about what impact this tragedy had on society is hard for me to even delve into. I am already crying as I type this.

I greatly admire all who help during disasters. These people are my heroes. To those who are affected by tragedy, I say: Things can definitely get better. Life will never be the same, but if you allow it, it can be really good.

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