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Just like most of America, I had watched the devastation of Katrina unfold on television. I work from home and keep a television on in my office. The haunting images of the wrath of Katrina, memorized me. It was not long,
before I started seeing animals in the television shots of the destruction. They were everywhere, rooftops, peering from windows, swimming for their lives and
being carried through the flood waters in their owner’s arms. I kept thinking… someone has to do something for these animals. I can remember a feeling of helplessness and panic. “Why isn’t someone doing something??”
One morning, about a week after the storm, sitting at my desk watching animals struggling for survival on television… I heard a voice … a loud voice… “You have to go!” It almost sounded like it came from over my shoulder, even though
I was alone in the house. I never once questioned what I heard, it was that powerful! Immediately, I started emailing all the large animal groups that were heading to the
region, offering to help. Humane Society of United States, ASPCA and many more. I kept getting automated email responses of: “we will get back to you”, and I began to get
very impatient. I felt that my 20 years of experience with exotic birds, could be put to some use… somewhere in the region. I waited impatiently to hear from someone, for two days. Finally I said “to hell with this!!” and literarily packed up my car and headed out, not knowing exactly where I was going, or what I would be doing. I had heard about a staging area, Lamar Dixon Equestrian Center in Gonzales Louisiana, where they were taking all kinds of animals that were being rescued. I thought I would begin there.
What made me think that I had something to offer to the situation, I haven’t a clue?
I am not a particularly brave person and my only true qualification was, an intense love of animals. All of them, not just parrots.
With my little Volkswagen, Cabrio, packed to the gills, with a tent that I had borrowed, a sleeping bag, boxes of granola bars, canned nuts, crackers, 6 cases of bottle water, 15 gallons of gasoline in gas cans, Gatorade, a couple of weeks worth of jeans and t-shirts, boots, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and baby wipes. I jumped on I-10 west and headed towards Louisiana. Little did I know, that the person that headed out that day… would not be the person that returned.
Armed with Map Quest directions, I spent the next 16 hours on a trip, which Map Quest said would take 8-9 hours. I-10 was filled with all kinds of relief workers, power company trucks, church groups, heavy equipment trucks and semi’s. Their license plates were from all over the east coast. I would see groups of about 20 electric company trucks, riding closely together, with their matching Electric Company Logo’s on the sides of their trucks. There were endless caravans of different phone companies, police departments and fire departments and trucks, filled with chainsaws, bottled water and workers, all heading west. Everyone that day was rushing to help. The feeling of being on that highway, that day, was eerie and electric all at the same time.
The traffic moved along steadily until I got to the border of Mississippi. The traffic became a parking lot of slowing creeping vehicles. This is where I first started
seeing the signs of Katrina’s wrath. The first thing I noticed were the huge billboard signs along the highway, were damaged. The heavy +3 ft metal poles that held them up, were twisted like pretzels. With every mile, the damage got worse, and
eventually there were no signs anywhere. No highway signs, no exit signs … no signs PERIOD. I started seeing mattresses strewn along the highway and articles of clothing hanging in the trees that bordered the expressway. The houses I could see had roof damage and many were sporting new blue tarps to replace the shingles that once were there.
When I reached the I-10 Pascagoula Bridge, all traffic had to be diverted onto the west bound side. A barge had taken out a huge span of the east bound side of the double bridge during the storm. I remember thinking, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Little did I know at that time, just how profound that statement would be. So far I had only had a glimpse, of what laid ahead of me.
At one point the traffic was just inching along, a few feet at a time. This went on for hours. There was a guy on a Harley right in front of me, whose bike was packed down with bags. I eventually pulled my car up side by side with him, so that we could talk… I was going stir crazy at this snails pace. He was heading for Biloxi, from Tampa Florida. He was a trauma nurse and was going to volunteer for a week, to help out at a hospital. I wished that I could have talked to more of those people on I-10 that day. They all had a story, of where they were coming from… where they were going and what they were going to do. To see this out pouring of love touched my heart profoundly.
The further I drove, the destruction continued to worsen. It is a strange feeling to go down a highway and not know where you are. The lack of signs proved to be very unsettling for me and eventually I had to pull off the freeway, to find someone just to ask “Where am I?”, to get some sort of bearings. I pulled up to a semi-destroyed insurance office, where I saw 2 men, trying to recover some items from their damaged business. They asked where I was going, and I told them I was heading to Gonzales, Louisiana. They wanted to know why I was going there and I told them I wanted to help the animals. The one man’s face lit up, and he began to tell me all about his Jack Russell. He even pulled out his wallet and showed me his little “Jack’s” picture. It was apparent, how just the thought of his animal, put a smile on his face. When I left, this man said, “Thanks for coming to help us” It felt extremely awkward to hear this, and I squeaked out a “You’re Welcome”. I found out that I was somewhere outside of Gulfport, Mississippi and I continued on.
What was eerie in the daylight, became even more eerie at night. However, the darkness spared me from the sight of destruction along the interstate. I knew it was there…
and my imagination began to go into double time. I would find out later, that my imagination didn’t even come close to the horrible reality.
I was so ready to get to someplace where I could get out of my car. There were no rest stops along the highway, they were all closed, because most of them no longer existed and their entrances were all barricaded. Needless to say, toilet facilities had been reduced to a paper cup that I found in my car. My Map Quest directions had become useless, because the suggested highways were no longer open. Everyone had to go through Baton Rouge and backtrack.
Finally I arrived in Gonzales, Louisiana at 11:00 pm, and found the Lamar Dixon Equestrian Center. There was a check point gate that was being manned by the National Guard. After this whole trip, they didn’t want to let me in. YIKES!! Fortunately for me, I have a knack for talking my way in or out of situations. My mouth started running and it sounded like I knew what I was doing. After much of my B.S., they finally let me in! I occasionally wonder what I would have done if they had not made that decision to let me in that night. Who knows, but I am sure that I would have come up with something.
The first thing I saw was tents everywhere and I could hear barking dogs in the distance.
I headed in the direction of the dogs. Lamar Dixon is huge expo center. The 6 “barns” house some 960 horse stalls. I eventually found myself at Barn 6 wandering around; trying to find someone that knew what was going on. Dogs were EVERYWHERE…hundreds of them. There were only a couple of people, cleaning wire crates and walking some dogs. I found out that the people “in charge” had gone to bed. Someone saw me standing there and asked me to walk a dog. I was handed a leash that had a very emaciated white Pit Bull attached to it. He looked up at me with little scared pitiful eyes and we took off walking. The first things that struck me where how loud it was with all the barking dogs, the heat and how huge this place was. When I returned the dog to the barn, a girl asked me where I was sleeping. I shrugged my shoulders and she suggested I set up my tent near hers. I followed her to a back corner on the compound. It was dark and I had never set up a tent before. So she and another guy who was in a tent in the area helped me out.
As tired as I was from the trip, I could hardly sleep. It was so very hot and humid and there was not one bit of air movement anywhere. I eventually had to take off all clothes and lay with only sheet covering as little as possible. It is hard to sleep when you have sweat pouring out of every pore on your body. Eventually exhaustion got the better of me, and I dozed off. Morning came quickly …
to be continued…Write by phanmemgoc