August 27 - August 28, 2005
It was nothing short of the calm before the storm. Early Saturday morning, August 27, we put into place our “trigger point” plan. The plan outlined steps taken in the event of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that included New Orleans in its possible strike zone. Specific steps were outlined based on the level. Categories 1 and 2 would trigger actions to protect the shelter and its animals, and issue advisories to the public on how to protect their animals. In the case of a major threat, Category 3 or above, we would evacuate our shelter animals 72 hours before an expected landfall. We had done so many times in the past starting with Hurricane Georges in 1998. In all previous evacuations New Orleans dodged the bullet, but it would prove to be excellent drills for the LA/SPCA. With each drill execution our timing improved. Only a month prior we had executed the plan for Hurricane Dennis. On July 14, 2005 Laura Maloney, the LA/SPCA’s Executive Director, used the occasion in her weekly pet column to urge residents to prepare themselves and their pets for a future hurricane. “It's over for now,” she wrote. “Thanks to Hurricane Dennis, we enjoyed (or suffered) a nice evacuation practice session.”
So on Saturday afternoon, August 27, with 263 shelter animals safely loaded into climate-controlled vehicles, LA/SPCA’s executive director, humane officers and animal care attendants, under the direction of Animal Services Director Kathryn Destreza, made the arduous contra flow trek from New Orleans to the Houston SPCA. The staff and animals arrived in Houston late into the night. Once the animals were unloaded and sheltered, the staff waited – fully expecting to return to New Orleans in a few days. That initial wait would prove to be the last calm before the storm.
August 29, 2005
Riding out the storm in Houston, the staff remained transfixed in front of radios and television screens, hearing the news reports that continued to escalate. Doomsday scenarios were being projected as the storm projections increased to a Category 5 and then were reduced to a Category 3 a few short hours before reaching Louisiana. Katrina however turned toward the Mississippi coastline at the last minute.
The first reports were that New Orleans had again dodged a major bullet. But soon that news would be overshadowed by a horrific reality. The levees and floodwalls, built after Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans in 1965, were failing. We would learn the full extent of that damage in the coming days but from all reports New Orleans was filling like a bathtub. Neighborhoods throughout the city were becoming submerged as breaches compromised both levees and floodwalls and water poured from Lake Pontchartrain into neighborhoods via the many coastal waterways surrounding the city. Almost no area was safe including Gentilly, Lakeview, New Orleans East, Mid City, the Lower Ninth and the Ninth Ward – the LA/SPCA’s own neighborhood. The LA/SPCA’s Japonica Street shelter was so close to the Industrial Canal you might as well call them backdoor neighbors. It had been the LA/SPCA’s home since the late 50’s. Tragically, in 1965 many animals lost their lives when they were not evacuated from the shelter during Hurricane Betsy. Forty-one years later, the LA/SPCA’s shelter animals were thankfully out of harm’s way, but no one could project just how many animals remained after Katrina and were now in peril.
The LA/SPCA had to return to New Orleans immediately.