Peter Block was waiting patiently for an emergency bus to Baton Rouge with his two black Great Danes, Venus and Serena, and Jasmine, a border collie mix.
Half his house, near the 17th Street Canal, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Block said. The rest was swept away when a levee broke.
In recent months, Block’s father and two sisters died of cancer. Now, with $116 in his pocket, Block is hoping to start a new life somewhere else with his dogs.
“It’s what I live for,” Block said as he nuzzled and petted his three canines. “My girls.”
These are tough times in the Crescent City for both man and beast. Though Katrina’s floodwaters are slowly receding, the storm and its ruinous aftermath have turned even the simplest tasks -- getting some sleep, scrounging a meal not tainted with E. coli bacteria -- into Herculean labors.
That’s as true for the thousands of human survivors who still haven’t fled their ravaged city as it is for the hundreds of dogs, cats, birds, reptiles and other pets that have been left behind to fend for themselves. Some are still grimly hanging onto life. They sit forlornly on the rooftops of flooded homes, slowly starving to death as rescuers in boats ignore them, looking for people instead. Some have even tried swimming to boats, only to be rebuffed.
Many other pets didn’t make it, and their bodies now lie in pools of scummy water or by the side of highways. Even those lucky animals whose owners refused to part with them, come hell or high water, have been suffering right alongside their masters.
Like so many of the problems in this frazzled city, the scale of the abandoned-animal crisis caught even experienced players off guard.
“It was obviously worse than anyone imagined,” Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal-welfare group, said in a phone interview from Washington.
The society has about 250 workers in the storm-hit area “as part of a team that we’re controlling,” including workers from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Oregon Humane Society and other organizations, Pacelle said.
“We were on the ground Tuesday, the day after the hurricane hit, but we were excluded from going in by state and federal authorities for the first several days,” Pacelle said. “We’ve received 2,000 e-mails and phone calls from people who evacuated from New Orleans, who left animals in their homes and are pleading with us to rescue them. That’s just in New Orleans. It doesn’t count surrounding areas.”
Pacelle said there may be 50,000 pets trapped in New Orleans homes. “The clock is really ticking. It’s tearing us up knowing that so many animals are in need and [we] can’t get to every one on our own.”
Earlier during the crisis, rescuers had been ordered to save people but leave their pets. But “that works against the larger imperatives for disaster relief because people will not leave without their pets, and many people will go back in to get their pets,” Pacelle said.
Animal rescue workers slog through the water and muck carrying crowbars to pry open or smash their way into houses where pets are believed to be. “I’ve been bitten, scratched, had [my] head cracked open,” said Jane Garrison, a volunteer rescuer from South Carolina. But it’s worth it, she said, because after a long Wednesday, Garrison and her four-person team had 18 animals -- dogs, cats, chinchillas and rabbits -- in crates in their truck.
Many animals, cats especially, won’t come when called, so Garrison and others spend hours peering into unfamiliar nooks and crannies, cooing and soothing and finally grabbing. If they can’t find the escaped animal, they’ll put out a bowl of food and water and make note of the location. They’ve crawled into houses surrounded by fire, and pulled dogs off rooftops that are sagging and about to collapse.
“The suffering is overwhelming,” Garrison said. “Sometimes they have food left, but all their water is gone. Every second is critical.”
The good news is that so far, most of the animals left indoors seem to be alive.
More aid may be coming. Information is available on the Internet at katrina.petfinder.com. The ASPCA also has a searchable online database to help reunite pets with their owners. Volunteers who want to help can register on the society’s website.
Several temporary animal shelters have been set up around southern Louisiana and Mississippi, some next to shelters for human evacuees so people can visit their pets. Louisiana State University is providing shelter for hundreds of dogs and cats in an arena.
One such shelter in Gonzalez, La., is taking photographs of every animal and uploading them to the Internet.
Besides pets, the flooding has damaged some of New Orleans’ animal attractions. The electricity failure meant there was no ability to pump oxygen into the water at the New Orleans aquarium, resulting in the deaths of about one-third of the 4,000 fish there. At the zoo, 12 people are trying to take care of about 1,400 animals.
After seeing how Hurricane Andrew nearly leveled Miami’s zoo in 1992, leaving wild animals roaming the region, the New Orleans facility upgraded its hurricane preparations, so losses there were minimal.
At the edge of the French Quarter on Wednesday morning, Steve Dey, 39, was hand-painting an impromptu street sign that he hoped might draw some help.
Dey and his wife, Dewanda, 38, have been looking after the pet dogs of two elderly neighbors who fled the city a couple of days ago and are now barred by disaster officials from returning.
Since the hurricane struck, Dey has seen many instances of human beings not at their best. “The people around here, they love their dogs more than they love their fellow man, and rightly so,” said Dey, who manages a small grocery store in the French Quarter. “Sad thing is, the animals around here are better behaved than the people. They’re trained. They’re not violent. You can walk ‘em around without leashes.”
By late Wednesday morning, a faint hope had arisen as a handful of residents, feeling deserted by authorities, chartered a bus to take them and their pets to Baton Rouge.
As they waited, a detachment of U.S. Army soldiers arrived to say that the federal government would fly people and their pets for free to any destination they chose.
Capt. Jamie Uptgraft said he and his men had spent the last two days rounding up animals and persuading their owners to leave the devastated city. “As long as they’re in a cage, we’ll take ‘em,” he said of the pets.
That was welcome news to Chris Buchner, 46, and her husband, Charlie Lilly, 46, who were lugging their two cats, Rose, 18, and Lucy, 5, with them in cages, along with their luggage, as they headed toward the arranged pickup point on the edge of the French Quarter.
The couple said they had spent days hiding in their home, afraid to come out while thugs roamed the streets firing guns.
“We really thought we’d come to the end because it was Armageddon out there,” Buchner said.
Johnson reported from New Orleans and Barrie-Anthony from Los Angeles.