Editorial: Fighting sinking feelings of failure in an inundated city
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2005:
Of the many stresses that Hurricane Katrina and Rita rescuers
had to deal with, perhaps the most ubiquitous was the feeling among
exhausted volunteers that no matter what they did, they had not done
“I have personally pulled hundreds of animals from roof tops,
attics, and houses,” HSUS food and water team leader Jane Garrison
e-mailed to Karen Dawn of DawnWatch on September 19. “It is amazing
to me that these animals are still alive. I got a dog off a roof who
should have weighed 90 pounds, but was down to 40 pounds from being
stuck with no food and water. These animals want to live and are
showing us this every day.”
But Garrison hardly felt uplifted.
“We still have 3,000 addresses of homes where animals are
trapped,” provided by human evacuees, Garrison said. “I know that
there are thousands of other homes where animals are trapped whom no
one called about,” she added. “I know this because I have rescued
hundreds of animals from homes that were not on our lists, after
hearing barking. Amazingly,” Garrison said, “we are finding that
half of the homes we get into have animals who are still alive. This
means there are at least 1,500 animals waiting behind closed doors
for a loving hand to rescue them. With the teams we now have, we
can only get into approximately 300 homes each day. We only have a
week at most to save some of these desperate animals,” Garrison
finished, begging for more volunteers.
Volunteer Maria Alvarez issued a similar plea on September 25.
“By the time we get to the first address,” Alvarez wrote,
“we have stopped to care for many animals on the streets along the
way. By the end of the day, we have only covered two or three of
the eight to ten addresses on our list.
“A friend and I drove today for six hours, but only a very
small number enjoyed our efforts,” Alvarez continued. “Everywhere
we looked there was at least one cat or dog looking for food. We ran
out of food and water (and some air in one tire) and headed home
devastated knowing that many had not eaten for days.”
“There are tens of thousands of animals still alive and left
with no food and water in the most unbearable heat,” Companion
Animal Network founder Garo Alexanian affirmed on September 27,
returning to his home in New York City after a week in New Orleans.
“The city has been divided into 31 sectors,” Alexanian continued.
“Teams have been dropping food and water for the past three weeks. I
eventually became one of the HSUS food and water coordinators.
Thousands of animals were temporarily kept alive. But the food and
water must be replenished.
“The next phase is to go door to door of the list of pet
guardians who called from all around the country, notifying us of
their address and how many animals they left locked in their homes.
This master list just became available three days ago. Thousands of
addresses must be visited,” Alexanian said.
Feelings of frustrated inadequacy seemed to go right to the
top. “There are many more failures than successes,” Humane Society
of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle told reporters during a September
16 briefing at the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Pacelle shared an abstract of estimates produced by ANIMAL
PEOPLE two weeks earlier that the 500,000 people who were evacuated
from New Orleans had about 250,000 pets, of whom about 200,000 left
with their families.
That left 50,000 animals behind. If 25,000 of them survived the
first few hours of flooding, then 25,000 potentially could have been
rescued. About 8,000 were rescued by the official disaster relief
teams, another 4,000 might have been taken out by unaffiliated
rescuers, and several thousand were found alive by returning New
Additional thousands could have been saved, if the Louisiana
authorities had allowed rescuers to enter the city several days
sooner–and if Hurricane Rita had not reflooded the city three weeks
into the rescue, interrupting the work and probably drowning some
animals who survived the first flood.
“Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath created a catastrophe
that no relief organization was fully prepared to handle,” ASPCA
president Ed Sayres summarized. “While thousands of animals were
rescued, thousands more remained in desperate need while the ASPCA
and hundreds of large and small animal organizations raced against
“Our rescue teams were at times waylaid by law enforcement
and a bureaucratic, time-consuming credentialing system,” Sayres
said. “Hazardous conditions halted many operations and poor cell
phone reception slowed response time. Rescue teams reached some
sites to find many more animals than expected and at other sites to
find Good Samaritans had already evacuated the animals.
“Hurricane Rita forced even more delay,” Sayres continued.
“Our 60-plus-page list of animals in need of rescue was compiled from
multiple sources and fraught with inaccuracy. Curfews limited the
number of hours that teams could operate. Lack of camping space and
services for staff and volunteers limited the number of responders.
“Still,” Sayres said, “more than 200 animal welfare
organizations worked furiously to coordinate rescue and relief for as
many animals as possible.
“No one knows how many animals were in New Orleans before the
hurricane,” Sayres finished. “No one knows how many animals were
evacuated. What we do know is that the numbers are staggering.”
Certainly the post-Katrina/Rita rescue effort did not manage
to save all of the animals who might have been saved. Perhaps the
rescuers saved 50%.
Yet historical perspective is in order
Hitting the same region in 1957, Hurricane Audrey–like
Katrina–nearly erased the coastal communities of Grand Chenier,
Creole, and Cameron from the map.
Officially, 390 human bodies were found. The actual death
toll easily exceeded 400, about 40% of the Katrina toll at a time
when the region held far fewer than 40% as many people. Whole
families were swept out to sea, with no one left to report the
Among the never identified victims was a teenaged girl who
drowned clutching a puppy she tried to rescue.
The American Humane Association and the Humane Society of
Southwestern Louisiana in Lake Charles were able to rescue just 58
dogs and six cats from the disaster area.
Both human and animal victims were hastily buried in mass graves.
Compared to the Hurricane Audrey response, the humane
response to Katrina and Rita was monumentally successful. The only
post-disaster animal rescue operations to have saved more animals
were those undertaken in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia
after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004–but that
disaster affected thousands of miles of coastline in nine Asian and
African nations, killing many times more animals than were rescued.
The Katrina/Rita response not only saved thousands of
animals, but saved a relatively high percentage of all who might
have been saved. Improvement was possible, yet a sense of
accomplishment against great adversity is well deserved.