Tuesday, September 20, 2005

David Arrives in Gonzales - September 20

by David Meyer, founder of 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com

I had seen the news, as we all had, regarding the terrible distruction in New Orleans wrought by Hurricane Katrina. I had also heard that nearly the entire city's population of pets had not been evacuated for many reasons, and 1-800-save-a-pet.com had already instituted a signup database for both shelters and indivuduals willing to help by fostering homeless Katrina pets. It was then that I got a call from our spokesperson, Pia Salk.

Pia told me that she had cleared the time to personally go to Louisiana and volunteer in the effort to rescue and evacuate pets. I thought this was a fantastic selfless act and I asked her to let me know first-hand how else we could help. To be honest, Pia is such an animal lover that I was concerned that she might not be able to cope with the terrible suffering she might encounter. But I also knew that her recent graduation as a doctor of psychology would help her cope, and help others as well. Her good friend and colleague, Megan McDonald joined her in this mission.

Last Tuesday, a week ago today, I got the call from Pia that made it all suddenly more real-- I guess you could say it got personal. Pia, barely able to speak, told me that what she was seeing was beyond comprehension. That an entire city's population of animals was trapped in homes and yards, starving to death, and there were not nearly enough people on the ground to do anything about it. She told me that, despite the best efforts of major national animal welfare organizations working in conjunction with the Lousiana SPCA, the situation was chaotic and disorganized. A makeshift animal shelter had been set up in nearby Gonzalez, Louisiana and was immediately overflowing with over 2000 animals, with more animals being turned away. With nowhere to go and no one to save them, tens of thousands of formerly loved dogs and cats that had miraculously survived this killer hurricane on their own, without the comfort of their human families whom they had grown to trust, were going to starve to death or die fighting on the streets for what scraps of food might be found. I knew at that moment that I needed to complete my offsite logistical support as soon as possible and get on the next plane to as close to New Orleans as i could get.

Over the next 4 days, I did my best to organize volunteers to come to Louisiana and help in this chaotic situation. I e-mailed everyone I knew, and tried to determine what supplies and logisitical items needed on the ground I could arrange to have shipped. By Saturday night, I had arrived in Lake Charles airport, two hours outside Gonzales, with my friend and 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com board memeber, Stephen Abbey. Steve, like me, had cut short a business trip to meet me. We were laden with our heavy bags containing tents, sleeping bags, crowbars, and what protective clothing we could hastily put together.

When we arrived Saturday night to the makeshift animal shelter in Gonzalez, Pia hugged us with tears, feeling that somehow a cavalry had arrived. We saw the thousands of dogs and cats hudled together in horse stalls in what normally was an equestrian center called the Lamar Dixon Expo Center. The air was thick with near-deafening barks and meows. With overhead lighting, volunteers worked 24 hours a day to give food and water to these desperate animals, and there clearly were not enough people. There were large pallets of food, cages, and other items, but there were not enough people here to care for these animals, let alone save the tens of thousands more still stranded in the city. A makeshift triage center was staffed by volunteer vets and vet techs, who obviously had not slept in days.

Pis showed us a giant tent just constructed by FEMA I believe, where there lay rows and rows of empty cots. This temporary air-conditioned structure provided the only break from sweltering heat and a near 100 percent humidity. It was so hot, in fact, that in the middle of the night, my glasses were pepetually steamed up.

We slept for several hours, and then we assembled for the daily 6am briefing, held outside a makshift command center staffed by HSUS volunteers, including one person whom I now know to be a true hero in this effort, Jane Garrison from Los Angeles.

Jane had been urging me to come and had consistently said what was needed was MORE PEOPLE. She had come here and, on her own initiative, had organized 30 teams of two volunteers each to enter the city, passing military checkpoints with animal welfare credentials and providing basic food and water to pets in the city until the 6pm curfew forced them to leave each night. They would then bring only the most critical pets to the animal city in Gonzalez, where they would spend hours in a line of cars waiting for the few vets to process the new and starving arrivals.

It was Sunday when Pia and I and a filmmaker from Los Angeles loaded up my rental van with bags and bags of food, makeshift jugs of water, and headed off to New Orleans.

I had no idea the hell that awaited me.

The heat was incredible and the humidity made it nearly unbearable. As we passed military checkpoints, we referenced our poorly Xeroxed maps which showed the quadrants of the city to which we were assigned. I can only describe myself as shocked.

OK-- I have to cut this short--

A hurricane is headed this way and the edge of it may hit New Orleans. If this occurs the levees may break again and, if they do, the city will flood again. It is possible that we may have to evacuate our shelter here in Gonzales, an idea I can't even fathom.

What I saw on my first day was something right out of some post-apocalyptic sci fi movie-- abandoned streets, houses torn apart, boats on roofs, cars in trees, everything covered in a dull red/brown caked mud-- a terrible stench of musty/excrement in the air. We were first to head into a part of the city that had not been seen by rescuers. The animal suffering here is difficult to describe, but I will try when I have more time.

Gotta go - pandemonium here-- we need more people!

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