Thursday, August 29, 2013

Eight years on-Looking back at Hurricane Katrina

My drive in to work today here in Nassau was past placid turquoise seas, under an outrageous blue sky broken by morning tropical thunderheads. The golden light off the edges of the clouds reminds me of a different sunrise overlooking the levees of East New Orleans. The water that morning was equally placid, but the context was far different from my current assignment.

Eight years ago today Hurricane Katrina swept ashore into New Orleans, changing not only lives but the physical map of Louisiana. I arrived a short time later, sent in by the inimitable-and formidable-Diane Albers of the Florida Association of Kennel Clubs. Diane faced off against the devastation of two horrors called Katrina and Rita, and was more than equal to the task. I will never forget her cigarette-graveled voice on the phone; "Jim, get your ass in there and tell me what the hell is going on!"

And so I went, mini-van loaded with supplies.  To give an idea of what I found, here is an excerpt from my notes and the written account I have been working at for eight years:

Watching the news reports as Hurricane Katrina churned north and west across the Gulf of Mexico was like watching a train wreck.  You knew it was going to be really bad when it hit.  You knew the damage was going to be something awesome to behold.  And for those of us in North Florida, although we wished no ill towards any of our Gulf Coast brethren, we were praying it tracked west instead of making a curve back into the armpit of our state.

When she blasted ashore along the Louisiana coast, punching New Orleans right in the face on August 29, 2005, our prayers were sort of answered.  We ducked out of this one, and we hoped maybe New Orleans had ducked The Big One they had been ducking for years.  After all, the initial reports were good.  Governor Blanco and President Bush said everything was fine.  They had no idea.

Reality painted an ugly picture.  The bullet-proof armor that New Orleans wore was made of Kleenex, not Kevlar.  Katrina’s impact brought the city to its knees, and the levees’ failure to hold their own administered the killing blow.  Later, by the time Rita hit, recoil had become redundancy, and as some wags put it at the time, the Big Easy had gotten the Big Flush, followed by the Big Rinse.

Bad humor aside, the city was not flush.  Before Rita ever hit, the situation was beyond critical and the call went out far and wide-HELP SAVE NEW ORLEANS.  Homes gone, people dead.  Infrastructure was invisible and salvation nowhere to be seen.

I sat by and watched, and waited.  As a retired Police Lieutenant, I hadn’t kicked any butt in almost six years, and I was itching to do…SOMETHING.  Jump into the fray, get involved, put on my Superman undies and ride in with the cavalry. When Diane Albers of the Florida Association of Kennel Clubs called and asked if I could run a load of supplies in to New Orleans, I jumped at the chance...

Driving in to New Orleans actually had me thinking, "This isn't too bad.”  For a few minutes anyway.  It was well after dark, and I had to go around the long way because the bridges over Lake Ponchartrain were out.  The electricity had been out since Alabama.  Darkness softened everything outside the glow of the headlights, and only the faintest hint of damage leaked through.  A road sign here, a bit of tree debris there.  Nothing major, nothing worrisome.

Until I had to swerve around the house.  I rounded a curve on I-10 to find a house sitting in the two left lanes.  It wasn't a big house, and it had suffered from the trip, but it was undeniably a house in the middle of a major interstate.

From there on the highway was increasingly littered with debris.  The first concentrations of junk on the road were items carried by wind and waters; furniture, boxes, assorted trash and bits people had left unsecured in yards.  But closer to the center of the city the character of the detritus changed.  Bags of clothing, assortments of bundled belongings, objects and orts dropped by refugees.  The tattered trail of things abandoned by people stumbling into an uncertain future.

And the darkness.  Although there had been no electric service since before Mississippi, I entered New Orleans and the darkness seemed to get thicker, heightened by looming unlit buildings, the shadow of a city.  Occasionally the faces of the buildings were broken by darker spaces, jagged black on black of broken windows.

The first security checkpoint materialized under an overcast of light.  Police cars and humvees blocked entry into the city proper, manned by haggard officers and Guardsmen.  The tiny amount of traffic did not linger long, and with a quick check of credentials and destination I was cleared through.

Exit off the highway on what I hoped was Crowder.  One twisted sign alongside the ramp, maybe in the right place.  Onto the surface streets, no lights, lines down all over, into the mouth of the beast. I had never before seen cars parked on the tops of houses, or boats in trees.  Flicker of images just beyond the spread of my headlights.  Gap-toothed windows and an over-layer of dirt on cars, homes, rubble.  Delay while it sank in – this dirt was sediment, not the dirt of neglect.  Settled out of water above, not just the product of poor upkeep.

Crowder ends at the Ponchartrain levee.  A huge earthen wall, behind which the lake stewed quietly.  Stairs led up and over, walkway at the apex.

Facing the levee were two camps.  On the left an unfinished office complex had become Field HQ for two companies of National Guardsmen.  The Guard camp was circled by free standing floodlights, tall on their generator bases, towers of light ringing an armed camp.

Across the street, in the complex that had been the Lake Castle School, was Muttshack.

Muttshack was an immediate response shelter and triage area that had been set up by two wonderful people from the Los Angeles area, Amanda and Marty St. John. Although they had never done anything of this magnitude before, they likewise could not just stand by. And as the Zen parable says, "Jump and the net will appear." These two jumped, made a net on the way down, and we fell into it.

Although there were tons of challenges, there were success stories. Animals were recovered and reunited with owners like the "pissed-off Pekingese" that needed just a bath and a warm place to stay until Mom and Dad could come get him.

The "Pissed off Peke"
Thousands of animals were rescued and treated so they could move on to new homes. Dogs like Pugsley, who spent 49 days on top of the freezer he had been washed onto after the flood, before we entered the house and rescued him. Kris and I brought him out and then handed him to Sue, who wrapped him in a towel while we drove like mad back to the Vet.

Kris and Pugsley
After the initial response was the follow up and clean up. I tried to escape in October-and wound up back three more times before I could finally get the swamp water out of my shoes. The last time was both sad and glorious: an airlift, arranged by the FAKC and coordinated by the unbelievable Jennifer Rowan, when we carted 77 dogs north through the sky to Indiana and Wisconsin aboard a World War Two vintage cargo plane. On our return south we watched sundogs chase us off the wing, escorting us safely home.

There were the tragic cases. Animals left behind by those who thought they would only be gone for a day or so died, in kennels and crates, in living rooms and attics. Animals found inside homes with their caretakers who refused to leave their companions, with both animal and human perishing in the flood. In the aftermath of the storm, the response, and the clean up, there were those humans who could not carry the burden of what they had seen and ended their lives prematurely.

Today we look back through a filter of eight years. Time allegedly heals all wounds, and many of the wounds of Katrina have at least long scabbed over. But the echoes of that time and that place linger on. Some have been good echoes; progress in disaster response planning, networks of shelters and activists that are ready and willing to step in (for example: the response of the Alabama Animal Control Association and the area shelters after the tornado in Birmingham and the massive response of activists and animal rescue organizations after the Joplin, Missouri tornadoes). Some of the echoes, such as who was really responsible for the levees and why so many people and animals died, still have us scratching our heads. And some echoes, like those of the people that died in the disaster, the animals that we found dead and dying, and those who have died since of varying associated causes, still haunt us. A friend still has dreams of the "Hell House" wherein 72 animals drowned. I still look up when I hear helicopters, and some days I catch a whiff of death on the breeze off the ocean. To hear Sonny Landreth, a Louisiana native, sing his rendition of "Louisiana 1927" still brings back the heat and the silence of New Orleans, 2005.

So eight years on we look back and remember, and just for a moment we who were there see and hear the ghosts of the bayou, the spirits that hover faintly above the waters of Ponchartrain, and we remember.

"Some people got lost in the flood, some made it out all right.
Busted through clear down to Plaquemine.
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline."

"Louisiana, 1927"  written by Randy Newman.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

LIVE! From Nassau, The Bahamas. A day of life in paradise. Right.

Those of you who are in regular touch know that I have spent the last six weeks or so here in Nassau, The Bahamas (yes, it is capitalized) working with the super folks at the Bahamas Humane Society (not capitalized in this instance. Yeah, grammer makes weird sense). As I have been here longer I have learned a lot about this tiny island nation, and have seen quite a bit that is, well, different than we see at home. So I am going to share my day with you today.

After settling in the first crisis was a German Shepherd brought into the clinic near death. This boy was severely overheated and unresponsive. The poor guy died almost immediately on arrival, too far gone and too damaged to be revived. The young police officer who brought him in was clearly distraught. He did his best when he found the dog and rushed him in to our clinic. Trouble was, he found the poor dog in a crate in the back of a police van. In the police lot. Under the supervision and control of the Bahamas Police.

I was out on the road when the dog came in, but when I returned I had the body pulled from the cooler to make sure all details were documented. The dog, weight 54 pounds, had an internal body temperature, 35 minutes after death and after being in the cooler, of 110.4 degrees F. Normal body temperature for a dog hovers around 102 degrees. This poor guy had been cooked and died of a combination of the heat and asphyxia.

The initial police account was that the dog had been turned over to the police for training. The dog was placed in the back of the van, probably on Sunday, left closed up in the heat and forgotten. An investigation is underway as the Police Superintendent has been notified. We will see what, if anything, happens next.

The next call was to a residence where neighbors reported two dogs in poor condition and a third dog dead in the yard. Ventoi and I rolled on that one in the Bahamas Humane Society Animal Ambulance.

We found a fenced yard in the suburbs of Nassau with a huge chain link fence. Two German Shepherd dogs came barking to the fence. The residence was empty.

One neighbor pointed out the dead dog laying, bloated, in the side yard. His two buddies look a bit lost.
We did contact a person in the area who had been trying to feed the dogs when she could. She related that the owner had been gone for a long time, whereabouts unknown. She had not heard from the property owner in some time, and the details of where the owner was and why were a bit cloudy.

The conditions in the area the dogs lived in were less than ideal.

Once they settled down the live dogs seemed to be ready for some company.
A relative of the owner came up to us and we discussed the best option for the two live dogs. They decided to surrender these two pups to the BHS, and Ventoi made a friend.
We also loaded up their departed friend to arrange proper and respectful disposal of his remains. The relative will be in touch with us (we hope). Until then we will be trying to nurse these guys back from poor nutrition and a severe infestation of ticks.

Next call-a report that kids were hanging and torturing dogs in an old hotel in downtown Nassau. I rolled on that case with BHS Animal Care Manager Kirk Duncombe. We met our source near the hotel and hiked on in. This is what we found-and no, this is not Aleppo or Beirut. This is downtown Nassau, in easy sight of the fun-in-the-sun of Atlantis and Paradise Island.
We entered the building and found what looked remarkably like a war damaged husk of a building. The dog we were seeking was on the second floor. She is a Potcake, a couple of years old. For those of you who have never met a Potcake, they are the indigenous dogs of the Bahamas, having resulted from generations of dogs imported from around the world and then marooned here to interbreed. They are the Caribbean version of the dogs found world wide living on the edges of, and often in the middle of, human civilization, making their way the best that they can. Although many live on the streets, programs like Operation Potcake and the Bahamas Humane Society have worked to spay/neuter and vaccinate a large number of these animals. For instance, during ten days in January, 2013, Operation Potcake sterilized 2315 animals in just ten days!

Here is our little girl.
A bit shy at first, she has not had great experiences with people before. She did warm up to Kirk after a few minutes of attention though.
We gathered up our little friend and prepared to leave.
Being the old cop that I am, and having been through similar buildings after Hurricane Katrina, I couldn't go without a sweep of the rest of the building. No taking chances that another friend in need might be hiding somewhere above.  And on the upper floors I met Celine (not her real name).
Celine is a refugee and is living in the shell of this crumbling wreck. She is making her way the best she can, along with her boyfriend. They have very little, and are not only struggling to feed themselves, but are caring for another of the resident dogs, a Potcake they have named Sheba. Sheba is one of the animals that were sterilized by Operation Potcake. Celine does her best to scrounge food for Sheba and give her company. Celine and Sheba also have a mutually protective relationship-Celine tries to protect Sheba from being victimized by humans, and Sheba gives Celine a warning system to alert her when strangers enter what passes for home.
Chella, an animal advocate and rescuer in the area, left some food with Celine and Sheba. Although I did not find any clear evidence of animal abuse in the building, I did find some disturbing graffiti on the walls.
Yes, that says "Hang "Em High" over the window. And yes, out that window we can clearly see the spires of Paradise Island's feature resort, Atlantis. This building is less than half a mile from the glitz and glamor of the largest tourist attraction in The Bahamas, and barely half a mile further from the high end shopping of Bay Street with its cruise ship crowds and Gucci storefronts.

We left with our new friend and headed back to the BHS. There she got a nice clean crate, vaccines, a thorough Vet checkup, fresh water and a good meal. Correction: This poor girl is named Bridgett and was an Operation Potcake dog. She has already been spayed. She does have a leg deformity that has been revealed by the BHS's new digital x-ray machine, donated through the generosity of Lindsey Panning and Tony Hull. Treatment options are currently being discussed. The deformity is not life threatening (a bone grown off kilter) so she should be moving along to her foster family soon.

By this time it was the end of the day and time to call it quits. The drive back to my quarters on the west end of the island passes by some of the most beautiful shoreline you would ever want to see, and I took the drive slowly to decompress a bit. Paradise it may be, but just under the surface are the same problems we face all over the world-animals in need, humans living on the edge, and conflict between those who place their own well being behind that of the animals they live with and those who would victimize both human and animal. We can only address so much at once. There have always been those who care and those who do not-or are even actively evil. The only thing we can do is try to affect our little corner of the world for the time we are there. This, for the moment, is my little corner. I will continue to work with the Bahamas Humane Society to address the many problems here, and if I am lucky I might leave this little corner just a little bit better than I found it.