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Responding to the cries of a drowning city

First responders’ impact on Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts

 

Officer Eric Durcinka feeding an abandoned dogOn August 29, 2005, a community and its animals were irrevocably and tragically altered. One of the deadliest and strongest hurricanes ever recorded, exacted a devastating blow to the Gulf Coast leading to the loss of thousands of lives, both human and animal. Amidst the chaos emerged one of the most enduring of bonds, the human-animal bond. In our relationship with animals, it became painfully clear that we needed them as much as they needed us. The cries for help from humans and animals could be heard across the country. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, volunteers and animal welfare agencies converged on the drowning city, eager to help in any way possible. 


The estimated 15,500 lives saved would not have been remotely possible without the selflessness of so many, like Eric Durcinka. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Durcinka registered as an emergency responder with The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS). In times of disaster, The HSUS will call upon their emergency volunteers and ask them to assist with rescue efforts. 


The Louisiana SPCA returned to New Orleans to begin the rescue efforts August 31, two days after Katrina. Within a matter of days, more than 7,000 addresses were on the rescue list and thousands of animals were being rescued. With staff exhausted and suffering from their own personal losses, the Louisiana SPCA called upon partners across the country for help. It was then that The HSUS reached out to thousands of emergency volunteers across the country, including Durcinka.   


Durcinka, an employee of the Humane Society of Saint Joseph County in Indiana at the time of Katrina, made the 15 hour drive from Indiana to Gonzalez, Louisiana where the Louisiana SPCA set up a temporary rescue center at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center. He arrived around 2:30 a.m. and immediately checked-in for their assignments. With only a few hours of rest in the bed of a truck filled with bags of dog food, Durcinka joined the convoy of more than 100 rescue volunteers to New Orleans, roughly a 50 mile drive. Each person in the convoy received a special City-issued credential to present at military checkpoints giving them access into the City that resembled a warzone. Those without credentials were not permitted to enter the City regardless of the reason. This system was put in place to protect those trying to enter hazardous parts of the City and to deter looters. 


Once in New Orleans, Durcinka recalls being greeted by a blanketed eerie silence. The only sounds or signs of life were that of the helicopters circling overhead. The air was filled with the stench of chemicals. Parts of the ground resembled the sunbaked earth of a desert, while other areas were coated with a thick oily, black, substance left behind by the receding waters. Durcinka and the others made their way to the assigned streets and began the door-to-door search. Each and every structure was searched, inside and out. Once a building was cleared, it was marked to indicate the date, hazards found inside, who searched the building and the number of live and dead victims found. 


While the searches were being conducted, triage tents were set up around the City simultaneously to provide immediate care for animals that could not afford to wait until the return trip to Lamar-Dixon at the end of the day. Durcinka recalls finding “some animals in such a horrified state of mind that it was physically impossible for him to get to them.” For those situations, Durcinka left fresh food and water. The following day, rescuers would try again. 


For the next two weeks, Durcinka’s life revolved around the animals. Working nearly 20 hours a day with restless sleep in between, Durcinka knew he had to get back into the City to help the more than 104,000 pets left behind. However, there were those that couldn’t be saved. It was far too common to find multiple animals each day that were killed during the storm and the flooding that followed. “The worst part about finding a deceased animal during our rescue efforts was seeing how they died,” says Durcinka. “I remember seeing a dog in a tree about 5 feet off the ground with its collar stuck on a branch. I can only assume the dog was trying to swim to safety and got caught in the tree as the floodwaters receded. That image will forever be engrained in my mind.” 


Ultimately, more than 15,500 animals were rescued thanks to the efforts of Durcinka and those like him. New Orleans made a lasting impression on Durcinka and seven years later he relocated to the Big Easy. Once in New Orleans, he pursued employment with the Louisiana SPCA after witnessing the extraordinary level of love, dedication and care displayed by the staff and volunteers. Durcinka has been an employee with the Louisiana SPCA for more than three years and is now the Humane Law Enforcement Field Supervisor. 

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