Book cover photo by Clay Myers, foreword by Ali MacGraw
On this, the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and while Hurricane Isaac continues pounding tropical rain on New Orelans and the Gulf Coast, it seems appropriate to share a sample chapter to the book Pawprints of Katrina. It’s heartwarming to see animals being rescued today with their people. It’s because of the Federal Animal Pets Act that what happened in the aftermath of Katrina never happens again.
By Cathy Scott
ON THE WATER’S EDGE, from a ramp leading from Interstate 10, I looked out on a vast span of still but deadly black water surrounding a New Orleans neighborhood. It was like a scene out of Waterworld, a postapocalyptic science fiction film. The off-ramp had been transformed into a boat launch. The silence was otherworldly.
Driving to the area that morning meant passing by one of the city’s oldest cemeteries not far from the French Quarter, with its aboveground nineteenth-century marble, brick-and-mortar, and stone tombs topped with Christian symbols of angels and crosses. The scene was eerie as the flooded tombs appeared to float in the watery sludge.
It was September 11, 2005. Parked on the ramp and sitting on the tailgate of his truck was Captain Scott Shields of the New York City Fire Department, famous for the courageous efforts of his search-and-rescue dog, Bear, at the World Trade Center. Captain Scott was with special boat teams deployed to the Gulf Coast region on behalf of the Bear Search and Rescue Foundation in memory of his dog, who, like many other working canines, passed away from health complications developed after searching Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Before we set out on a boat to look for stranded pets, the captain looked around at the team. Then he asked us to take a moment to remember those lost on 9/11. There, standing amidst the rubble of Hurricane Katrina with the black water just a few feet from us, we bowed our heads, and not a sound was heard. No cars. No lawnmowers. No birds. No planes. No trains. No voices. Not even the couple of dogs rescued and then tied with leashes to the off-ramp railing, awaiting transport, uttered a sound. It was as if, at that brief but somber point in time, they, too, acknowledged the loss of life. It was a poignant moment, observing those lost in the largest terrorist attack on American soil while we were in the thick of rescuing animals in the wake of the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history. The Crescent City was devoid of life, except for those of us out rescuing that day and, of course, the animals left behind.
Leaving in boats were team members Jeff Popowich, Ethan Gurney, and Mike Bzdewka and volunteers Ken Ray and Tracey Simmons. Volunteer veterinarian Debbie Rykoff stayed on the ramp to treat the pets brought in from the water.
I stepped into a small, aluminum jon boat — stable and flat-bottomed — with Mike and Tracey, and we motored away from the freeway toward the nearby houses, maneuvering around felled trees, fallen street signs, water-logged cars, and whatever else was in the water. We boated out to a five-block area and stopped at Myrtle Street.
It was my first run of the day and Mike and Tracey’s second. Mike cut the engine, and we sat in the boat with silence all around us. “Watch this,” Tracey said as she started barking. “Woof, woof, woof.” The street lit up with the sounds of animals. We heard a cat meow from three blocks away. On Myrtle, a dog barked, and then we heard another cat. At the intersection, Mike stepped out of the boat to pull us past large debris and tree trunks, and then he jumped back in and continued motoring.
It was an older neighborhood of wooden row houses, and the water was just above the porches. We boated to the first house on the corner, where we’d heard a cat meow from inside. Mike stepped onto the porch, opened a window, and grabbed the cat. He put the cat in a pillowcase, because we didn’t have a carrier, and handed it to me as he got back in the boat. I set the cat next to me on the bench seat so he wouldn’t get wet from the polluted water on the floor of the boat.
Midway down the street, a dog barked from a backyard. We moved toward the narrow driveway on the side of the house and saw a gray Poodle mix on a car roof next to piled-high debris that used to be a garage. Mike got out and waded to the house next door while I stayed in the boat with the cat. I held onto a porch railing with one hand and petted the cat through the pillowcase with the other. Tracey stepped out and, wearing rubber hip waders, began making her way down the driveway. Halfway, she abruptly stopped and let out a moan.
“Are you okay?” I called out.
“No,” she hollered back. “Something’s in the water.” She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I think it’s a body.”
“If it was a body, it would be floating,” I told her.
“It’s bubbling. It just moved,” she said, lifting her arms above her head.
I knew she was spooking herself even more, so I tried to change her focus. “Look around you, Tracey,” I said. “See the tree branches sticking out of the water? It’s just a tree trunk.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Positive,” I told her, not sure of anything at that point. “Just focus on the dog. Keep looking at the dog and step over the tree.” She slowly started moving again. It seemed like it took an eternity for her to reach the car. When she did, the dog jumped over the rubble behind him and into the murky water. Finally, she cornered him, plucked him from the muck, and carefully waded up the driveway and back to the boat. Tracey said she thought it might have been an alligator, because there were reports of sightings, but we doubted a gator could survive in that murky muck. The still-wet dog, who turned out to be a Cockapoo we later named Goofy, sat on my lap and didn’t move, even with the cat next to him. We got a second cat from next door, and then went to a few more houses on the street. Tracey followed Mike into one house, but she didn’t have a good feeling and turned around. When Mike emerged, he told us that five dogs had been tied in the yard, and it looked like they had all drowned when the water rose higher than their leashes could reach.
In silence, we motored away from Myrtle to Elder Street, to where a cat was walking on a rooftop. We called to him, but he walked even higher to the roof’s peak. The fence was down, and there was no way for us to climb up. He was out of reach, so we headed back to the boat ramp, hoping another team with more gear could get him.
That scene played out every day on rescue duty. So did the sight of animals who hadn’t made it. On the front of one house in Lakeview, spray-painted in black were the words “4 dead dogs on log chains in back yard.” The teams learned to celebrate the successes and not dwell on the animals we could no longer help. It was the same with the people who had died and whose bodies were floating in the water. There wasn’t anything left for us to do for them.
Because floodwater was steadily receding from neighborhoods throughout the city, rescue teams geared up for door-to-door searches on land where the waterline was dropping and for boat searches in areas where the water was still waist deep.
I HAD ARRIVED two days earlier, on September 9, 2005, when my plane landed in Jackson, Mississippi. By noon the next day, I was at Camp Tylertown, where an animal triage center had been set up. I immediately went to work on the fifty-acre grounds of the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary, a place that was alive with activity.
Assignments often lead journalists in their careers. Stories of the military have taken me to Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Panama. In the case of Katrina, instead of human strife, the plight of helpless animals took me to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf region. When the opportunity arose to travel to New Orleans, Biloxi, Waveland, and Gulfport to cover the largest animal rescue effort in history, I jumped at the chance. Within a day and a half, I was there, recording the events and stories of the displaced pets of Katrina.
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