October 15, 2005-December 9, 2005

That animals were rescued was an answered prayer; but being reunited with their owners would prove to be a more difficult prayer to answer. Of the thousands of animals rescued during Hurricane Katrina only 15-20% were ever reunited with their owners. Although it appears to be a low percentage, it fares better than the national averages of 10%; but for the owners searching for their pets percentages hardly matter. During the rescue operation, animal transportation became a necessity as more and more animals filled Lamar Dixon. Shelters and fostering agencies stepped in to help because there was no single facility in Louisiana large enough to house them until their owners could be located. This resulted in rescued animals being transported all across the country for holding in hopes of future reunion. Unfortunately, clear documentation identifying where animals were found and ultimately transported was sorely lacking, a casualty of both the chaos of Lamar Dixon and the rescue groups working outside the system.

To understand the hardship of starting over, it’s important to note where the LA/SPCA was pre- Katrina. The LA/SPCA had been viewed as one of the best animal welfare organizations in the country with a solid staff of 65 individuals and a strong board of directors. Post-Katrina the organization had dwindled to 15 of its original staff, all struggling with deep personal and professional losses. Our infrastructure had been shattered. Staff was also shattered. Of the seven original humane officers who tirelessly rescued animals during the Lamar days only two would return with us to New Orleans. The others resigned due to the overwhelming physical and/or emotional trauma they experienced during that time. Shortly thereafter one of the two original officers would also resign.

With this tragic backdrop, the LA/SPCA returned to New Orleans to re-establish its organization and provide care and support for a community of people and its animals that had been fractured and ripped apart. Our shelter on Japonica Street was destroyed and finding a new location was as challenging as setting up Lamar Dixon. A property search was taking place concurrent to the rescue operations. In late September a location was secured.

On October 15, the shelter set-up began in the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers. Algiers had been spared the flooding that had destroyed most of the city but it still bore the scars of Katrina. Wind had damaged structures, including the warehouse leased by the LA/SPCA, and holes littered the roof. Well-designed animal shelters are very specialized structures that require unique elements like proper drainage, air control and well thought out space configuration, especially when you’re an “open admission” shelter accepting any and all animals.

Creating an adequate shelter in our new temporary facility pushed the staff to its limits. The location was never intended to house animals and did not have even the basic necessities like plumbing and drainage critical to animal shelters. The staff, with the help of volunteers from the San Diego Humane Society, assembled hundreds of kennels. Tents were erected on the grounds as additional housing. A “M.A.S.H.-like” tent was created to provide a minimal setting for the one remaining veterinarian and a skeleton clinic staff of two to treat and perform surgeries on our growing shelter population. The kennel staff and sheltered animals co-existed amidst on-going construction. It was a physical and emotional hardship for all involved. Caring for animals, cleaning and maintaining a shelter and keeping it free of diseases under normal circumstances is a challenge. Doing so in the midst of a structure being built requires a Herculean effort.

As the warehouse was being converted into a shelter, humane officers continued rescuing the animals that were still victims of the storm. They had been working non-stop since Katrina and continued to do so. Trailers served (and continue to) as offices for the staff. During this time the LA/SPCA operated only as an animal control facility. All the organization’s other programs – adoption, education, a public clinic, community outreach, a volunteer program – were wiped out. The staff was too small and the urgency of saving animals still on the streets and helping owners find their lost pets remained the order of the day. And quite frankly the days and nights were never long enough.

Nearly eighty percent of the staff was new and most had never worked in the animal welfare industry. Whether new or experienced everyone struggled with personal and professional losses and many worked through a fog of post-traumatic stress. During this time we relied heavily on the support of those from around the country who came in to fill in the gaps.

Those supporters were the stars on our horizon. The assistance we received during the rescue operation only grew when we returned to New Orleans. There were armies of supporters behind us to whom we are eternally grateful. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and The Humane Society of the United States helped us set-up our new temporary facility and provided financial and staff support. Staff from other shelters came to New Orleans, rolled up their sleeves and did somersaults helping us establish our new temporary facility. All worked miracles in record time – everything from negotiating with vendors to training staff. There were so many who came to help and made New Orleans their temporary home including the San Diego Humane Society, the Humane Society of Broward County, the Humane Society of Missouri and the Nebraska Humane Society. They kept us sane and functional.

Kate Pullen was director of Animal Sheltering Issues at the HSUS when she was dispatched to Lamar Dixon. When the LA/SPCA returned to New Orleans in October, Kate was one of the many who remained to assist in re-establishing operations. In December, Pullen was hired by the ASPCA to work with the LA/SPCA for two years. Respected in her profession as the “best of the best” in animal sheltering, she led the charge in setting up the shelter and was instrumental in managing day-to-day operations.

With the infrastructure of New Orleans also destroyed, both mail and phone services took months to restore to full capacity. Having a limited number of phones and relying heavily upon cell phones we were flooded with calls of those still looking for their pets. We made our operations available to the public seven days a week to accept lost reports and we installed a computer kiosk where the public could search for their pets using internet search engines like PetHarbor and Petfinder. Everyday we heard the emotional pleas of those desperate to find their animal companions.

Because we were the epicenter of the largest animal disaster in U.S. history, we were also the focus of unrelenting attention. Media calls poured in from across the country and sometimes beyond the U.S. Animal-focused groups and individuals analyzed, blogged, discussed and, at times, second-guessed our actions, philosophies and standards of operation. We conducted tours and fielded hundreds of e-mails. It was a daunting time.

In November 2005 in hopes of attaining a full, comprehensive picture of New Orleans’ animal situation post-Katrina, the LA/SPCA established a multi-agency, independent assessment team to evaluate the state-of-animals in the city to effectively plan for the continued recovery of New Orleans animals. In general, the majority of the team members were surprised by the low number of stray animals spotted in a city that has typically had a high stray population. Although not sizably visible during the assessment, teams agreed that there were more strays than appeared during our study. Some of the volunteer rescuers suspected that there were a number of strays who could not be quantified because of feeding programs by well-meaning but inexperienced individuals that made it more difficult to locate and humanely trap strays. The pace remained at lightning speed and we were aware that our programs and services needed to be re-built. In early December the volunteer program was re-activated. A majority of the LA/SPCA’s volunteer team, a major component of the organization, had been displaced by the storm and we desperately needed new volunteers.

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