Monday, October 03, 2005

Stories from the field

Posted by David Meyer

I want to take a few minutes to relay some stories, some very sad, some happy, some funny. These are in no particular order. I’m doing this partly because I want you to know what it was like, but also to make sure I never forget this experience.

I remember the process I went through mentally when I decided to come. I had been hearing the news reports about Katrina and wondering what was happening with all the pets. I remember watching CNN while teaching martial arts in Mexico City. Then, when I got home, our spokesperson Pia said she was going to volunteer. I thought that was admirable and told her to report to me. When she called me crying, saying I could not imagine the suffering, starvation, and the lack of organized human response, I realized I had to go. Even then, I was not sure if I would really drop everything in my life to do this-- it all seemed crazy. It took a day or two of wrangling my schedule for it really to sink in that I was going to go to this place and help out on the ground. I had a martial arts seminar trip to Colorado planned for that weekend that I could not afford to cancel, but I decided to cut it short, and by the time I got to Colorado, I was feeling guilty that I wasn’t getting to New Orleans sooner. I had one of the instructors, Isaac Costley, speed me to the airport in Denver after cutting short a Saturday morning seminar, only to realize I had left my cell phone charging in the wall of the martial arts studio in Castle Rock. Fortunately, Isaac’s cousin had a very fast motorcycle he was not afraid to use, and he met me at the airport with my cell phone just minutes before I had to board the plane. I could not believe they let me on the plane with luggage filled with crow bars, cans of spray paint, mace, knives, radios and zillions of batteries that looked like bullets in the x-ray machine.

I was joined by 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com board member Steve Abbey in the Houston airport, where I had a layover on the way to Lake Charles, Louisiana. When we arrived in Lake Charles, we rented the last mini-van available. Oh, what that poor mini-van was in for, beginning on the first morning, when we loaded it up to go into New Orleans. Suddenly, I heard hissing from the back of the car, and Steve yelled out an expletive. I turned and saw a cloud of red gas enveloping him and the back of the open car. I thought it was the mace that had busted open, but in fact, somehow a can of red spray paint got punctured-- Steve and the whole rear of the van was covered in paint. We rushed to get water and towels to clear the rental van before the paint dried (Steve was on his own to clean himself). Miraculously, and with a lot of elbow grease, we actually got the paint off the exterior and the interior of the van. I hoped this would not be an omen. Later that day, some water jugs burst in the back of the van and mixed with bag of dry dog food, creating this weird mush that we were too tired to clean out, and which eventually became a moldy awful mixture that rendered the van, shall we say, less than pleasant-smelling. That, plus a bunch of torn bags of dog and cat food, plus the toxic mud on our shoes made for a very interesting car rental return in Baton Rouge the other day. I jumped out of the van in the rental car parking lot, with a rescued cat in one hand and my luggage in the other, and yelled to the attendant that I didn't need a receipt as I ran to catch my plane. I can’t imagine what the rental car cleaning crew thought, but I have a feeling a very big charge will be appearing on my credit card!

Anyway, back to that first night. When we left the airport, It was 9:00 at night and the weather was so steamy that my glasses kept fogging up. We arrived late at the makeshift shelter and Pia gave us a tour. Thousands of animals and people and vehicles were moving fast everywhere; clearly things were in full swing. It was weird and awesome.

On one day in the field, Steve and I must have fed 50 dogs and cats. Toward the end of the day, we got a call that a resident had found two dogs in his second-floor apartment. The odd thing was that the house was locked and he did not have dogs. Apparently, the dogs had swam in through a window during the flood. It was weird. One of the dogs was a slightly aggressive pit bull we could not get without a catch pole, but the other was docile enough for us to catch, and we got him into one of our transport crates and headed back to the shelter at Lamar Dixon. The dog was skin and bones and ate quickly, only to become ill on the ride back. We decided to stop the van and let the dog out while Steve cleaned the cage. It took Steve about 20 minutes to drop us off, swing around the highway to a filling station, clean the cage and return. He left me roadside with this dog, and what I am about to say is 100% true: I knelt down and that little dog reared up on her hind legs, put her paws tightly around my neck, pressed her chest hard against mine and hugged me with her cheek pressed against my cheek. For 20 minutes, that dog stayed on her hind legs, hugging me tightly just like that. I just kept telling her 'You're welcome, you're welcome" and "you're safe now".

Another day, I teamed up with a volunteer named Courtney, but she forgot her credentials and couldn’t get past the National Guard checkpoint to enter the city. I did not have time to take her back to Lamar Dixon, so I let her out of the car and notified our dispatch to have someone else pick her up. I continued in a caravan with Jane Garrison and her partner and we found one little dog on a balcony of an apartment building. This dog had not been fed in weeks and was trembling with fear. I extended my closed fist toward her and she bit at me repeatedly in fear, thanks to my thick leather gloves, the bites had no effect on me. I put the leash around her and got her in the car. I worked all that day without a partner, which was dangerous because there would have been no one to call for help if I got injured or trapped somewhere. The rest of that day was just horror.

I went into one house that was just absolutely destroyed, as so many were. The hurricane had thrown things all over the city and downed poles and trees, as hurricanes do. But the flood had filled the residences with a toxic sludge of seawater, untreated sewage, oil and gas from underground tanks, and any other substance present in a house or garage that had was now floating in this awful still water. There were, of course, the bodies of dead animals and people in this water as well. The water filled houses and floated the contents, turning refrigerators on their heads, twisting book shelves, literally opening and emptying closets and dressers, twisting floors and doorways. When the water subsided, it left behind this slippery slimy residue. By the time I arrived in New Orleans, the houses had been baking in the hot Louisiana sun for weeks. In preparation for the hurricane, the residents had closed and locked all the doors and windows and drawn the drapes to protect against broken glass. This meant that when I would enter, it would be the first time that the house was opened in weeks and I would be hit by this wall of hot, musty, rancid, toxic air--honestly, you needed to have a mask on or you'd risk becoming ill.

Entering a house is treacherous, because you are going from bright sunshine into utter darkness. The floors are covered with twisted and toppled furniture at all angles, and it’s slippery to boot. It’s hard to breathe in the mask and you’re wearing bulky gloves and carrying a crowbar and big flashlight. My first task in entering a house (which may have begun with breaking a window, removing security bars or even kicking in a door) was to tear down curtains and blinds to let more light in. Then, I would search each house, room by room, looking for cowering and ill dogs and cats who were hanging on to life by a thread.

Well, on that particular day, I entered that destroyed house and during my search I entered a back room, which was a total shambles. On a bed, I saw a cute little Benji-like dog on its side, dead, with its eyes open, looking not unlike the many stuffed animals strewn around the room. It was so surreal and tragic. May rooms I entered were kids’ bedrooms with all the trappings of a happy child's life: toys and games and stuffed animals, now all caked in ooze and fungus and thrown about like a life destroyed. I saw tricycles suspended in trees, teddy bears hanging upside down--lives just ruined--and then I would come upon a dead dog or cat--just horrific.

Later that day, I entered a two-story house. Only the first story was destroyed, so I knew a pet may have survived on the top floor. As I approached the top floor, I saw a chair had been used to prop a board up to create a makeshift blockage to a bathroom. When I got closer, I looked over the board, only to see a cute family dog who had died of starvation in the bathroom. This type of sight was normal.

On another day, I and my partner for that day, Shana, were at another destroyed house. I helped Shana, who was small, in through the window. I was very impatient and wanted to move fast to cover as many homes as possible. I urged her to check every room quickly and wanted her to hurry out. As she came back across the living room towards me, she spotted one other door. When she opened it, as if in some thriller movie, the body of a dog came stumbling through the door, causing her to scream. The dog was alive but emaciated, and so disoriented it could not make a sound, and my haste almost caused us to miss him. We lifted this dog that should have weighed 50 lbs through the window; now it only weighed maybe 15lbs. She then checked the room only to find another dog, presumably this dog’s friend, dead on the floor.

Early on, I was very bothered that our only way to find pets from inside closed residences was to listen for dogs barking. We did not have nearly the number of people or the legal authority needed to go into every home. I knew we were missing all the cats, because they could not call out to us like dogs did. As we cruised the deserted and destroyed streets, whistling for dogs, I kept saying that we must be passing several homes with starving cats inside. It was for this reason, as well as others, that I was ecstatic when I discovered that there was a database being kept of owners who had called to report their pets left behind, but this list had never been given to us, the rescuers!!! I spent all night working with Sara at HSUS and Dorothy at dogdetective.com to get that list in a format we could use. That list has now become the Mapquest mapping system guiding all our rescue efforts in the city.

I had spent so long working on the list, and I just wanted to know it was worth it. I printed off a list of homes where residents reported they had left cats, figuring that more cats remained to be rescued than dogs. I was desperate to save even one cat before I left. Late one day, I had the opportunity. That was the day I was operating alone, and I approached a two-story house, always a signal to me that a pet may have survived. I saw a white cat out front, emaciated and scared, and I fed it, but he/she ran away. Then I heard it: a faint meowing from behind the front door! My heart raced, as I knew this cat would be near death, but I was so excited that he was within my grasp to save. I couldn’t noisily bust through a door or window because I was afraid I’d scare the poor thing, already weak and frightened, into hiding or going silent so I could not find him. The house had windows to the left and right of the front door, so I called the kitty to the right-hand window and he poked his head through the curtains. I remember being on the headset cell phone with Abbie from 1-800-Save-A-Pet.com at the time, and I was describing everything I was seeing. She couldn’t believe it. Then, I ran to the other window and with a quick snap used my crowbar to crack through two panes of glass, one on each side of the window, where the latches were. The cat was not scared and he came back to that window and let me lift him out to safety. I put him in the crate and entered the house looking for any other pets. I found none, so I left the window open and set up some food and water for the white cat I’d found in front of the house but had run away.

Our list included contact information for the people who had reported their pets were left behind, so I called the owner’s number that night. I spoke to the owner's son-in-law, who told me that the cat I saw out front was the other of two cats that lived at the house. The next day, I had another team dispatched and they were able to get the cat. Later that day I got a call from John, the owner of the house, who was now a refugee staying with his son in Las Vegas. This powerful man, who described himself as 6'2" and 250 lbs, and who had a tough-guy New Jersey accent, sobbed as he thanked me for saving his cats. He described the cat I found inside the house, Trevor, as his child whom he’d rescued and raised from a kitten. He told me of his immense guilt having to leave his cats behind when he evacuated, thinking he would be home in two days, and how he had been assuming the cats had died. He said I had no idea what it was like to wake up one day and have lost your house, lost ALL your possessions except the clothes on your back, lost your car, lost your wife's car, lost your job, lost your wife's job, lost your business, lost your parents' home and their cars. He told me he had lost all this but by my finding his cats, I had given him back the only thing he lost that really mattered. That was a highlight for me.

I could go on with more stories and maybe later I will...

9 Comments:

Blogger Kate Danaher said...

Please contact Eric Rice at 443.421.0000 and ericrice3@comcast.net.

Eric writes: How do I get in touch with him (Davdi Meyer) I have some shelters who have called me, I have a guy driving with some refridge trucks and I have the lady with the airplanes.

Please email us your email address and direect line.

Thanks, Kate Danaher
I left you a voicemail today. I was with Jane Sept 17 Day 1 of Command Center/Dispatch in Prowler...
415-459-1149
katedanaher@animalearthhuman.org

12:12 PM  
Blogger Jackie R. said...

Thank you SO SO SO SO MUCH for all you have done and continue to do - God Bless you!!!

3:47 AM  
Blogger rina deych said...

Thank you so much for all you have done and are doing to help the animal victims of Katrina.
It is killing me that because of health problems and overwhelming responsibilities at home I cannot come down there and physically help.

Rina Deych
Brooklyn, NY
http://www.rrrina.com/

5:44 AM  
Blogger Clare said...

Thank you for sharing your stories. It's painful to read your accounts, but it's so important to know. Thank you for all the brave, compassionate work you and your colleagues have done and continue to do. I am continuing to try and get funds sent your way. Bless you.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Monica said...

To All Animal Rescue Volunteers that worked the Hurricane Katrina Distaster areas,

I am in the prosess on putting together YOUR pictures and stories of your rescue efforts to be publish in a book dedicated to only Katrina Animal Rescue efforts.
What I need right now is your email addresses and contact phone # and the time you were in these areas and what your title was a as a volunteer.
My goal is to not only include pictures and stories but also list every single person and their organization affiliation in this book. Of course a portion of the proceeds will go to animal welfare organizations. Lots of deatils have yet to be ironed out and we are just in the begining stages of this so please only send your personal contact info and I will be in touch very soon.
I am determined to do whatever I can so that these animals will never be forgotten. I know we will never be able to erase the things we saw and felt but the whole world must always remember with us.

Thank you

Monica Elkins

monicaelkins@gmail.com

6:07 PM  
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For the next hurricane rita ; the easy way to keep going.

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