It was Lennon, their 12-year-old American Eskimo, who first alerted JQ Dick and his fiancée Stephanie Manso to the flood. "He usually has to go out early, like 4:30 a.m., so one of us has to let him out," Manso says. When she turned on the lights, she realized Lennon and their other dog, Brew, were standing at the foot of the bed in at least two inches of water. "He had been hitting the bed," she says. "He was trying to do something to wake me up."
The couple moved into action. Dick put musical instruments, heirlooms and his fiancée's jewelry box in the attic, and the two of them prepared their 8-year-old son Conrad and 2-year-old daughter Marlee to leave. The water pressure against the front door was so strong that Dick couldn't open it, and the couple had to pass the kids and dogs through a front window.
While the evacuation was in progress, Lennon, who is nearly blind, kept wandering off the steps and into the water. Manso had to pull him to safety several times.
Only a few minutes after the couple waded to a high truck and hoisted the kids and dogs into the bed, Manso asked, "Where's Lennon?" There was a moment of panic as they realized the dog had likely walked off the truckbed. Just then, a neighbor boated up to the truck. "I got your dog," he shouted. He had pulled Lennon, who had been swept away by the current, into his boat unscathed.
"You saved my dog, man!" Dick said to his neighbor, "What can I do to help?" The two men waded into chest-deep water to carry their elderly wheelchair-bound neighbor out of her house. When Dick returned for her glasses, blood pressure medicine, and pets, he tucked her small dog under his arm — but the cat clawed at him when he tried to grab him next. To save him, Dick had to put his shirt over the cat and throw him in a bag. When another neighborhood dog wandered by, he placed him in a boat. "Once we got him to dry land, he ran right to his people," Dick says.
Manso credits Lennon with saving them: "If it wasn't for him, we probably wouldn't have gotten up when we did and who knows what would have happened."
Dick and Manso have been staying with family since fleeing their home but many didn't have that option. The a multi-use events facility in Gonzales, Louisiana, has been transformed into a place of refuge for Ascension Parish evacuees and their animals. The co-habited shelters opened on August 14, with the Red Cross running the shelter for people — which peaked at 800 residents before settling to about 200 two weeks after the flood.
The sound of barking fills the main arena where shelter residents' pets are being held. With its dark green bleachers and dirt floor, it's often used for rodeos and horse shows but this building and the property's cattle pen and eight barns have been converted into housing for a total of 1,300 animals including dogs, cats, birds, horses, cows, pigs and goats. Small animals are kept in pens. Long tables hold donations: rows of canned dog food, leashes, bowls, bedding and toys. Large bags of dry food are stacked two-feet high against the wall. Shelter residents can walk or take a shuttle from their residence to care for their pets. Two weeks after the storm, several hundred small and large animals remain at the shelter.
Dr. Renée Poirrier, a public information officer for the shelter, was also here during Hurricane Katrina, exactly 11 years ago, when they housed 7,500 dogs and cats and 466 horses. Poirrier says that because the state requires the microchipping, tattooing or freezebranding of horses, 99.8% of horses housed post-Katrina were connected back with their owner. However, the reunification rate for cats and dogs post-Katrina was much lower — only 15 to 20%. "Those people were separated from their pets during the disaster," Poirrier says. "The goal of this shelter is to prevent that separation."
Seven-year-old brown and white pitbull mix Daisy rushes out in excitement when her crate door is opened and begins licking her owner, 16-year-old Maranda Babin, on the face. "Easy, baby, easy," says Maranda's mother Jennifer Martin, 39, petting Daisy's head. The night their house flooded, water rose knee-deep in 10 minutes. Martin, her family members, and their six dogs had to be evacuated by a high-water military vehicle. The water ended up rising almost to the ceiling; the house, the same one Martin grew up in, was a total loss.
Since arriving at the shelter, they have come every day to walk, feed and play with their dogs. "We are back here religiously," Martin says. Like some pet owners, Martin's housing during the recovery is uncertain and she has realized she cannot care for all of her animals. The shelter has already helped Martin find homes for two dogs and they are now trying to place Daisy.
"People are going home to find they have no home," says Pamela Bradley, of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team. She has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community in bringing supplies and corporations donating microchips and medications.
She talks about William McNabb. "Mr. McNabb is the sort of person who would see a box turtle with a broken shell and make resin to repair it," Bradley says. When he was evacuating, his new baby chicks and turkeys were hatching in their incubator. McNabb brought the 30-minute-old birds to the shelter. When Rhonda Mason arrived with two greyhound crates to donate, she saw the baby chicks and turkeys and took them home to put under a lamp. Five of the six survived.
Outside the arena building, Larry Carrier, 46, of St. Amant walks his Great Pyrenees Tara Nicole. Carrier and his fiancée were staying in a rented trailer when the flood hit. They escaped before the water rose, but their trailer was destroyed, the floors disintegrating. They stayed with his fiancée's cousin for one night, but finding it too crowded, made their way to the shelter. In addition to Tara, they have a 15-year-old Blue Point tonkinese cat and a 5-year-old Chihuahua.
Carrier received a call the day before from shelter staff notifying him that, depending on parish decisions, the shelter may be closing soon. Staff is trying to get in touch with owners to make sure their animals are registered in their name since the close date for both shelters is up in the air. Carrier says, "We are homeless. If my animals have to leave, I'll leave. I'll sleep in the truck with the animals. They are like my children."
A few doors down from the main arena, the cattle pen houses horses and cattle that have already been matched with their owners. Many of these were rescued in a six-day mission throughout St. Amant and Baton Rouge. For days after the rain began and the flooding started, several rescuers spun lassoes and roped cattle and horses from their aluminum flat boats. In one instance, after Jason White roped one black and white cow, a nearby red one, feeling threatened, approached the boat and tried to step inside, nearly capsizing and pushing those inside into the floodwater.
Another rescuer, Grant Smith, 24, now scales the cattle pen fence and walks over to a pen with a dozen Clydesdales and Clydesdale mixes. With his back to the fence, the horses nuzzle up behind him, tilting his cowboy hat. Smith says, "I know we loaded these in the middle of Highway 22."
"The waters came up so fast around here that most people did not have time to be proactive," Smith says. So those who could helped with rescues. While the Cajun Navy was out rescuing people, these cowboys rescued 280 cows and 60 to 70 horses.
On horseback, two or more riders herded cattle and horses, calling out and using a bullwhip to move them toward dry land. There, they would be loaded onto trailers. "Most animals are hesitant to get in a trailer," Smith says, recalling that all of the animals were stressed and scared. "Whenever they realized this was their ticket out, all of them jumped right in. Just like anyone else whose home went under, their home went under too."
A day or two into the rescue, while herding cattle through a flooded river, Smith and his horse had a close call. Though it seemed all the water was flowing away from the river, a bayou spun a strong undercurrent. Smith's horse, already swimming with water up to his chest, lost his balance and fell into the water. Smith came off his horse but was able to grab onto a nearby bridge. The horse pulled himself out and Smith fought the current to make it back to him.
"My horse is better now but he was sore for several days," he says.
After the group rescued several trailers full of animals, they traveled back and forth all day to the Stockyard in Prairieville to dry and tag them. At night, volunteers hauled trailers filled with cattle 90 miles one-way to a pasture owned by Smith's uncle Whit Brown, who agreed to keep the cattle as long as owners needed.
Jolie Culpepper, Vice President of Cara's House, an open intake animal shelter in Ascension Parish, says, "Part of the problem is that the pastures are drying out, but they are covered in mud and soot from the floodwater. We need a good rain to wash away the soot so it's edible again."
In addition to taking in 15 horses besides his three, Smith is caring for a blind baby calf he found on one of his runs. Nicknamed Diesel, Smith found him with his face covered in oil, likely from a tank that spilled into floodwaters.
"The mom's udders were underwater so the baby couldn't get to the milk — he was so malnourished, I didn't think he was going to make it," Smith says. His mom was rescued later. "She was so out of it that she didn't realize it was her baby." The week-old calf's eyes were clouded over. "Either he was going to die or somebody had to take him," he says. Smith took Diesel home and is bottle-feeding him and treating him with eye ointment, penicillin and antibiotics.
Culpepper, 35, reaches up to pet the nose of a large brown horse. Her Cara's House T-shirt says: "Caring isn't what I do, it's who I am."
In Barn 1, where the unclaimed livestock stay, Cara's House is also caring for 220 unclaimed cats and dogs. All along the stalls, dogs in wire cages wag their tails. Volunteers hustle to provide food and water and write information on each animal's chart. Because staff and volunteers have been here 24/7 since opening, they've set up a cot under a pop-up tent for sleeping. Behind the barn, a staff trailer with central air-conditioning houses animals about to give birth. Culpepper says many of the rescued animals went into labor because of stress.
Each stray is fully vetted: assigned a unique number, checked for microchips and ID tags, given a heartworm test and administered with necessary shots and medication.
One entire wall is covered with "Missing" signs and descriptions of animals from owners who have called in looking for their pets. When new animals come in, volunteers scan the signs hoping to connect lost pets with their owners. with information and pictures to try to connect animals with their families.
At the onset, the shelter had up to 200 volunteers a day. Now, two weeks out they are down to about 30-50 per day, but that is still more than enough to run the co-habited shelter.
Poirrier says the animal shelter will stay open as long as the Red Cross shelter is open. Director of Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security Richard Webre says they will begin scaling back this week depending on people's need and that, because many evacuees staying the shelter were renters, his office and FEMA are working to get people into long-term housing.
"The whole operation from start to today has gone so smooth because a lot of us were here for Katrina so we know what happened and learned a lot," Culpepper says. "So this time, we didn't wait, we just jumped into action and hit the ground running."
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