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Chalmette Saint Bernard's Parish, LA
mini location map2005-10-09
68 by photographer avataroutdoor_lover
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Chalmette Saint Bernard's Parish, LA 
Chalmette Saint Bernard's Parish, LA
Volunteer avatar Oct 09 2005
Volunteer9 Days         
   3 Hrs    Break150 LBS Pack
 no routes
1st trip
Linked none no linked trail guides
Partners none no partners
I wanted to share this trip with you all, because even though it's old, we all love nature and this is an incredible reminder of what the Fury of Nature can do. This might be more easily descibed as an Urban Camping/Hiking Volunteer Project.

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck and decimated many of the towns and cities on the Mississippi/Louisiana Gulf Coast. By October, the ASPCA was getting desperate for more volunteers to come in and help with the Animal Rescue Operations going on in the region. They needed experienced Animal Handlers to come in and they furnished the transportation to and from the site. Our employer wanted to help, but could not "fund" any Animal Control Officers to go, but asked for volunteers that were willing to take "vacation time" and go. Myself and one of the Lieutenants on staff volunteered.

They sent us a "packing list" which basically stated, bring whatever you need to survive without any amenities. There was no potable water, food, electricity or communications in the area of Saint Bernard Parish. We also had to be updated on all of our shots. So I went shopping and spent quite a bit on survival gear, but most I knew I would be able to use again, so wasn't worried too much about that. We ended up going to the airport with one large duffel bag each, a tent, a suitcase full of MRE's and snacks, a fishing rod travel container (for our snare poles), and 6 cases of water. The airline was pretty cool about it, once they knew where we were going.

Arrived in Baton Rouge on October 9, 2005, rented a vehicle and drove to the site. You could smell the mold and mildew in the air, 50 miles before you even hit New Orleans and traffic was backed up for miles. We barely made it into the Parish before the curfew closed the highway to "in" traffic. The week before we came, they had started to open up the Parish for residents to come in, but it was during daylight hours only, all civilians not associated with "Relief and Aid" were required to be out of the Parish by nightfall. The only ones in the Parrish at night were the local and Parish Police, Fire, Military and members associated with the ASPCA. Not very many people were there at night.

We arrived at Command Post/Temporary Shelter/Camp and were met by the some of the Command Group and a few of the other volunteers from around the country. Most of the volunteers and staff were still out in the field. The organization had set up their command post at a local high school, in the baseball fields. It was a perfect setting and we were shown around the camp, mostly by flashlight, although they had some lights up, running on generators so that the Veterinarians and their volunteers could still work. There were several huge awnings up, housing a couple of hundred portable Airline type kennels. One awning had dogs and the other awning had cats, chickens, ducks, ferrets, a huge Iguana found in a mini mart, and a few countless other exotics. There was a batting cage at one end that was used for an exercise pen and the fenced dugouts held other animals such as a couple of Pot Bellied Pigs and one very large, regular, sow. The livestock was kept at another facility. To our amazement and relief, we discovered that they had running, but not potable water, so they had rigged up a shower for the camp.

We were also informed that 3 days before today, a Cruise Ship had come up the Mississippi River and docked not far from our location and was offering 3 free hot meals a day during certain hours, for the relief workers, so the food and water issue became much better. And the Cruise Ship also offered Hot showers which just about everyone took advantage of at least every 3 days. There was always a line, so every day or other day was not in the cards. We also discovered to our delight, that at the Cruise Ship location, Tide, the detergent company, had brought in a semi truck equipped with washers and dryers, and a crew to run them, so you could drop off your clothes before getting on the ship for a meal, and then pick them up, clean, the next day. It was awesome how some of these companies came through for the workers....

We were also informed as to the condition of the dogs that were left, wandering in the streets and countryside. Even the friendliest of dogs were turning feral and they were starting to pack up and were becoming aggressive in their desire to survive. The Police and Military were having to shoot some of them. These dogs would no longer come to a person, in many cases, not even their owner. They were in the deepest state of shock and severely traumatized and some were dying every day from starvation. The cats were doing ok, they are natural hunters and were surviving pretty well on their own, so the ASPCA and the Head of the Parish's Public Animal Shelter made the decision the week before to concentrate mainly on the dogs and livestock. We learned that unless we could find somewhere to "corner" a dog, we would most likely only catch the dogs now with Humane Traps. (Cages with Pressure Plates, that activated a Spring Door) and so most of our time would be spent driving to trap sites, hauling traps with dogs in them back to camp and resetting new ones. We would also be checking on reports of animals still in houses, which most were deceased at this point, but there was still hope. The day before, someone had found a Dachsund, barely alive, in a house. They thought that probably the only way the dog had survived as long as it did was because it's housemate, another Dachshund, had died possibly the week before. We knew our work was cut out for us.

The next day and the day after, we rode with volunteers that had been on site for a couple of weeks so that we could get to know that area. This is when most of the picture taking took place as they also gave us a tour of the area to help us get familiar with the streets and surrounding countryside. For the next 7 days, we ran trap to trap, checking them, rebaiting them, and returning the ones with dogs in them. My co-worker also went out with another crew, since she was experienced with horses, to check on the livestock and horses in the outlying areas of the Parrish. She brought back stories of the images and devastation seen at some of the ranches and farms that will forever stay in my mind. We did not take pictures of anything deceased, so if you look at the PhotoSet accompanying this Log, you will not find anything graphic of that nature. We did not need pictures of any of that. Those images will stay burned in memory for a lifetime...

We also received requests from residents to check their houses for animals that they were forced to leave behind, and reports of dogs, barking in dwellings and such. That's where the "hiking" came in. When a house fills up all the way to the ceiling with water and then drains, everything that was not bolted to the floor, rose with it, swirled and then settles wherever. So every house that we entered was an obstacle course. Instead of climbing over rocks, we were climbing over belongings, furniture, clothes, pictures, cars, boats. And the mud, if you could call that substance that was knee deep in the houses, was slick with oil, gasoline and every imagineable chemical, and sewage. And then you had to watch for the Cottonmouths as we ran into several in houses. My co-worker ran into an alligator in a horse barn...

The smell in the air and in the houses was absolutely thick. There was still standing water in quite a few houses, six weeks later, and between that and just the incredible amount of moisture in the air and the walls of the houses holding the moisture in, the mold and mildew just coated everything imaginable. You really couldn't wear waders, as they were too bulky and you didn't have traction in the mud, but I had brought along stocking foot waders that I could wear with my hiking boots, so I got elected to do any wading that had to be done. When we left the following Sunday, we threw away our hiking boots, they were absolutely not going back, lol! It took us several scrubbings and launderings of all of our clothes, tarps and tents before you could get the mildew/mold smell out of them, it was in the air, so it had saturated into everything.

The dogs were a challenge. We had to trap them all, with the exception of about a dozen, that we managed to corner in houses or fenced areas that were still standing. They wanted nothing to do with humans and they were starving. The amazing thing was the transformation that took place right before your very eyes. The dogs in the trap or at the end of a Snare Pole or in a net, were snarling, snapping, wild animals that would rather bite you than be within ten feet of you. But we would talk to them, reassure them and within minutes of loading them in the trucks, they would melt and become the family pet again. It was awesome to see. By the time we got them back to the Command Post, we could take them out of the traps on a leash and they would be wagging, and playing and jumping all over you with delight. Some of them were in pretty bad shape and they would still be wagging....

Every day, once the residents were allowed to come back in during the day, a line would form outside the Command Post of people looking for their dogs and people requesting that we check their houses. Some people would not go into their houses until we "checked" them as they wanted to know ahead of time whether or not their dog was still in there. Sometimes the people just wanted to know what they were going to see, before they actually saw it. Others decided not to go into their houses at all, after we had checked and confirmed that the dog was still inside. We were not allowed to do anything with the deceased for fear of spreading any diseases to the ones that were still alive...There was alot of crying. But there was also alot of smiling, when a resident would discover a picture of their pet, in the photo albums that we kept. We took pictures of every dog captured, as the dogs were continuously moved off-site, sometimes to another state, to make room for the ones that we were bringing in every day. The only way the residents could find out if their dog was rescued for sure, was to go through the albums. Sometimes we would get incredibly lucky and the dog identified, would still be at the Camp, so we could reunite dogs and owners on the spot. Those moments were very thick with emotion, but of a happy nature.....

We put in 19 to 22 hours a day. Alot of times, we basically came back to Camp for good at about 2-3 in the morning, caught a couple of hours of sleep and then back up at 5. By day 5, we were getting pretty punchy. Between lack of sleep and the local residents incredible sense of creativity and humor, we found alot of reasons to laugh and it was a blessing. This was difficult, heartbreaking work. But fulfilling at the same time, knowing that we were doing everything we could. The stories of survival that we heard from residents was unbelievable and sobering.

Nighttime was the most interesting. The entire Parish was a ghost town and you could almost imagine that you were in one. There was no electricity anywhere, so it was pitchblack with just the vehicle headlights and flashlights lighting the way. There wasn't a structures left that had any windows, and alot of them didn't have doors either, so all of the houses had that empty shell look. At night in camp, the only sounds heard were an occassional barking dog either in the camp or in the outskirts. Some of the dogs still out there were drawn to the camp simply because of the other dogs or a dog in estrus. The spookiest thing was the sound of gunfire throughout the night. Sometimes close, sometimes a ways off. You never knew what it was from. Looters in the Ninth Ward, the military shooting dogs or what? We didn't want to know....

The military patrolled our camp on the hour, every hour, as a safety precaution. There were people that were ignoring the curfews and running into someone that did not want to be detected was always a possibility and a threat.

In the eight days that I was there, only one dog approached me. A female Rottweiler came around the corner of a street and of course, always the optimist, I whistled and called to her. She saw me and came running. I braced for an attack, but as she got close, her body language was all wrong and I knew she was ok. She ran right up to me and sat on my feet, leaning into my body and looking up at me as if to say "Where in the hell have you been?" It was love at first site and I ended up flying that beauty to Phoenix to stay with me. We later adopted her when the owner could not be found. Her name was "Dixie" and she was the perfect example of a creature that continued to beat the odds and survive, always with a big smile. But that's another epic story and we enjoyed her and loved her for two years before she passed on to the Rainbow Bridge.....

On October 16, we packed up and headed back to the airport in Baton Rouge for the trip home, much lighter than when we came. We left feeling like we had accomplished something, but also wanting to stay because there was still so much more to do. So many animals still out there.....We were humbled, sobered, and grateful for all of the help that was offered, some Animal Handlers had come from as far as British Columbia, Canada to help. We also cherished the friendship and comraderie found and shared in our experiences. There was always a shoulder to cry on and a buddy to laugh with. The atmosphere was full of love and compassion for the animals and it was all good!

Would I do this again? Absolutely, in a heartbeat, and I will. It was an experience of a lifetime. The satisfaction of knowing that you made a difference not only in animals' lives, but also in the peoples' lives that had to endure such horrible devastation and loss was worth any tears that were shed, or any heartbroken moments endured.

I read later that there was not a building left standing that was not condemned as unliveable in the entire Parish. It all had to be leveled and rebuilt. I applaud those that perservered and stayed to rebuild and live again....

There are plenty of links if you would like to read about it again. Just Google Hurricane Katrina and Saint Bernard Parish. Wikipedia actually had a great site. If you got through reading all of this, thank you. This is just a reminder that disaster can happen anywhere, so be prepared. It might just save your life and the lives of the ones you love, human or otherwise.....
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty & well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, totally worn out & proclaiming, "Wow What a Ride!"
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