It was the smell of the place that first struck Eric Durcinka as he stepped out of the air-conditioned SUV. A chemically, oily stench overwhelmed the senses. All around him, everything was caked in a putrid gray mud.
Durcinka, then executive director of a humane society in Indiana, peered out at a motionless street littered with furniture, toys, entire houses. What stood out the most, though, was something that couldn’t be seen. It was the silence of New Orleans. The only sound in that moment was the banging of a piece of metal slowly hitting the side of a house, blown by the breeze.
He felt empty and alone.
“That very moment, I stood there for the first time and it really finally hit me — that New Orleans, a major U.S. city, was gone,” recalls Durcinka.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 1,000 veterinary professionals and volunteer rescuers descended on New Orleans from around the country. They had one primary goal: Rescue as many animals as possible.
Over the next few weeks and months, they searched the devastated city for strays and pets — and ended up saving more than 10,000 animals.
The impact that the experience had on rescuers would stay with them long after their mission ended.
A Surreal Scene
Hurricane Katrina was the first time Durcinka had responded to a major disaster to search for animals. When he arrived, he was assigned to specific neighborhoods.
He was walking down one of the residential streets when a friend pointed out a dog on a roof.
“As we got closer, 2 more dogs crested the peak of the roof, and there stood 3 emaciated pit bulls,” says Durcinka. “The house was abandoned and locked with security gates over the doors, preventing us from easily getting the dogs out. Luckily, at the same time … a massive military vehicle was driving down the road.”
The military vehicle was so large that when it drove up next to the house, Durcinka and his friend were able to walk onto the roof and scoop up the dogs one by one. It was hot and sunny that day, but the heat didn’t seem to bother the dogs; they were happy to finally see people again.
New to Animal Rescue
Helen Hester was working in the hospitality and tourism industry when the hurricane hit. Beyond feeding stray cats and getting them spayed and neutered, she had no idea what animal rescue entailed.
She had gathered her pets to evacuate ahead of the storm. One cat was missing, so Hester had no choice but to leave plenty of food and water before rolling out of town with her mother, a pair of friends, 5 cats and a dog. They expected to return in 2 to 3 days, but their plans changed when they watched news of the levee breaks from Atlanta.
The group wasn’t able to travel back to the area for 5 weeks. Upon their return, Hester’s missing cat was found safe. However, Hester knew many other pets would not be so lucky. Armed with determination, she drove to the Louisiana SPCA to see how she could help.
The temporary shelter was a huge, cavernous space, row upon row of cages.”
“The temporary shelter was in a coffee warehouse in the unflooded West Bank neighborhood of Algiers,” says Hester. “It was a huge, cavernous space, row upon row of cages for dogs, a small separate room for cats, a small separate section for the clinic. When we first arrived as volunteers, I remember the vet was performing life-saving surgery on an injured dog. Her operating room was isolated from the rest of the shelter only by a wall of blue tarps and her will to save a life.”
In the weeks that followed, Hester helped rescue and take care of the animals, including a fearful dog named Spice (now named Chaz), who had been found running loose on the West Bank. He was so fearful that he had to be caught with 2 catch poles.
The shelter had a “Rehab Tent” where the most terrified dogs were placed. Volunteers took turns reading to the dogs to get them accustomed to people again. Chaz improved, and a few months later Hester adopted him. Chaz is now a therapy dog and accompanies Hester to schools and camps through the LA SPCA’s Show & Tail program.
While Hester was fortunate to have found her missing cat and adopt Chaz, she says she can only imagine the heartbreak experienced by people who weren’t able to take their pets with them.
“My heart goes out to you. I know this was not a casual or irresponsible choice,” she says. “It was a horrible decision forced on you by a horrible situation.”
Not Just Dogs and Cats
Alex Chernavsky was an assistant volunteer coordinator in an upstate New York animal shelter when the hurricane hit. He didn’t know what to expect.
What he found when he arrived in New Orleans was a silent wasteland. “It was so strange to be in a big city with almost no one in it,” says Chernavsky. “There was no electricity, no traffic lights. It was also odd to enter other people’s homes — sometimes by breaking in using sledgehammers and crowbars — and then walk around inside their houses looking for animals. The experience was like something out of an apocalyptic movie.”
He spent days searching for and collecting animals to be returned to the temporary shelter set up at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales.
Sorry if we missed your animals, but we did the best we could.”
Dogs and cats weren’t the only pets needing to be saved. At one house, Chernavsky and his group found a turtle floating in a swimming pool. A rescuer with reptile experience recognized the turtle as a species that was not native to Louisiana. It, too, was taken to the shelter.
The rescuer ended up flying home with the turtle to California, where it went to a reptile organization.
Chernavsky hasn’t participated in such a large-scale rescue effort since, but he says the experience will stay with him for a long time. For those who weren’t able to take their pets with them, he says, “Sorry if we missed your animals, but we did the best we could.”
“This Is a Huge Responsiblity”
Veterinary students were also hard at work after Hurricane Katrina.
An arena at Louisiana State University was transformed into a makeshift shelter where people who weren’t allowed to take their pets with them were able to drop them off.
Dr. Alissa Whitney, DVM, then a senior in veterinary school, recalls the experience: “Having people hand over their animals to you and telling you that ‘All I have left in this world is what I’m wearing and this animal,’ all you can think is, ‘This is a huge responsibility.’”
The video below shows scenes from New Orleans after the storm as well as commentary from veterinarians and volunteers:
“Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst”
Because of Hurricane Katrina, pets are now part of emergency planning. We can’t control nature, so unfortunately another disaster on this scale could happen to the nation again.
However, we can be better prepared in the future using the advice of our rescuers. “I wish more people would microchip their dogs and cats,” says Durcinka, who now works for the Louisiana SPCA. “Unfortunately, most of the problems that came after the storm were getting animals reunited with their owners.”
And if you plan on volunteering as a rescuer, Hester stresses an important preparation: “Hope for the best, and plan for the worst. And plan to bring more than 2 changes of clothing. In fact, bring all your underwear just in case.”
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Editor’s Note: This is part of a special series on pets and Hurricane Katrina. Top photo by: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA.