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Even after the storm passed, Hurricane Katrina continued to claim lives

A firsthand account of how lives were changed by Hurricane Katrina

Daisy and Jennifer ShirleyAugust 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. Amid 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. This need was heard all across the country and animal lovers of all kinds converged on the devastated city of New Orleans. 

“Hurricane Rita followed closely behind Katrina’s departure and this explained why there were only eight people on the flight into New Orleans. Who in their right mind would willingly and voluntarily fly into a city preparing for a hurricane? Although I had no idea what to expect, I knew we’d all be OK.

As a volunteer with the Oregon Humane Society I had asked to join their second team of six: four staff and two volunteers. I felt honored to be included, but I was ill prepared for the hard work and heartbreak that awaited me.

Our team was sent to the Louisiana SPCA's temporary facility at Lamar-Dixon in Gonzales, Louisiana. Our home for the next week was Barn 5 where two of us slept in a small SUV. As Rita approached, all of the largest trucks, transport vehicles, etc. were positioned close in to each barn in an attempt to protect the animals as best they could. Each of us had a designated two-hour shift during the night to ensure the dogs were never without human supervision. Being from California originally, I had never seen “sideways” rain with the intensity that Rita imparted; sleep was not happening for any of us that night. 

During my shift I noticed a Pit Bull puppy shivering in her kennel. She was sweet and her entire body got happy when I spoke to her, but she continued to shiver throughout the night and this concerned me greatly. Although there was a fully equipped emergency veterinary unit just a few barns down, I knew I had to wait out Rita before I could get this girl the attention she needed. How is it that dogs can muster such enthusiastic glee even while feeling miserable? Do cats or even humans do this? I think not. 

By early morning, Rita was softening and it was time to get back to animal care duties. I had requested a vet to check on this sick puppy, but Barn 5 was the last barn in the line-up and there were a lot of animals in need of assistance. Still shivering, the only relief she found was when I took her to a stack of hay bales. There she would nestle down and her body would grow calm. I called her Daisy because she was the essence of happy innocence. 

The vet who came to examine Daisy was kind, gentle and very concerned. She determined that she was about six months old, dehydrated and sick. She was given subcutaneous fluids and I was told to keep an eye on her and to contact them if I didn’t see any improvement by morning. She became my main concern and her well-being my mission even though caring for the other dogs felt all consuming. The majority of the dogs were intact Pit Bulls with several females in heat.

Our assigned duties were clear: each dog got a walk, their kennels were cleaned and a bowl of food awaited the dog’s return from their walk. Except for the two hour quiet period we gave the dogs midday, their care was a nonstop task. Some of us enjoyed the one-on-one of dog walking, while others preferred cleaning kennels. But everyone loved seeing dogs thrilled at the sight of the full bowl of food upon return. They could not get into their kennels fast enough.

Early the following morning I radioed that Daisy’s condition had not improved overnight. Within minutes a golf cart arrived waiting to transport Daisy and me to the veterinary emergency unit, which was several barns away. I gathered up Daisy and placed her in my lap. For that short drive she had her person and looked as if she didn’t have a care in the world, head into the oncoming wind, ears flapping and her body leaning into mine. 

When we arrived at the emergency vet unit, Daisy was quickly taken from me and sent in for an exam. It was hard to let her go even though I knew she was where she needed to be. Despite the fact that the vets and vet techs were overworked and sleep deprived they were amazingly professional and kind. They reassured me that I could visit her anytime. Little did they know that I would have gladly stayed put and bunked up right next to her kennel.

I came back several times to check on her and noticed that she had finally stopped shivering, a relief for both of us. With her entire body wagging to my arrival, it was still obvious looking into her eyes that she was a sick girl. I could only hope that she would recover and in time move on to find her new home. A home that would surround her with the peace, calm and love that had most likely evaded her so far.

Early the following morning I made my usual trek to see Daisy, but she wasn’t in her kennel. Her kennel was empty which was unusual so early. Waiting my turn in line to talk to the vets at the information desk I thought about where she might have been taken, but none of my thoughts came close to reality. They were unable to find her name at first and I hoped she had just been placed into the wrong kennel. No, it wasn’t that simple; she had been euthanized. I was sure there must have been a mistake, but when the vet said she had tested positive for Parvo1 it all made miserable sense to me. Pit Bull puppy … Parvo. I was devastated. All the strength I had for Rita and the 150 dogs we were caring for disintegrated in that moment. She was another casualty of Katrina. I resumed my duties in Barn 5 and finished up my time at Lamar-Dixon, thinking always about my brave puppy who never had a chance. 

Returning to Portland was difficult, life seemed so mundane. Where was the minute-to-minute importance? I’m not one to look for or enjoy drama, but it was the collective mission that we all shared together that had been so powerful. And I missed Daisy. I knew how lucky I was to be the one to notice her that night of Rita’s intensity, but it still filled me with sadness to think about her short life. But it was time to move on and get back to my life, my husband and dogs, and the safety and love of home. The week that had changed my life was now just a memory … one amazing memory.” – Jennifer Shirley, Oregon Humane Society 

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