Canadian Marine Mammal Rescue Network

Hurricane Katrina

Mississippi - September 17 to September 30, 2006

It was the 3rd day of watching the news reports about Hurricane Katrina from the comfort of our den, so much devastation and human suffering. Then small snippets began to also show that there was significant animal hardship as well, and the 2 were connected. One assumes that one of the most powerful countries in the world would have this well in hand. It was becoming very clear that not only was this not the case but indeed things were getting worse for humans and their fellow animal companions.

The Oceanographic Environmental Research Society (OERS) is a Canadian registered charity focused on helping with marine animal issues but this disaster clearly crossed all political lines and help was needed. After many emails and phone calls by our President Mike Belanger and political red tape, OERS mounted a hurricane relief effort, with joint sponsorship from Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto and the Michener Institute.

Dr Carin Wittnich, an OERS Director and OERS volunteer Stejphan Soric, were mobilized and deployed to Hattiesburg Mississippi initially for one week of relief work, focused on rescue and care of animals caught up in this disaster and issues related to public health. They worked under FEMA, the HSUS and MS Department of Public Health and then OERS was asked to extend their deployment by an extra week to go to Gulfport MS, at the epicenter along the gulf coast to help the local groups get up and running again.

It was hard work with long hours in 110o F weather, limited resources and ongoing adverse weather (Rita came through) but rewarding and appreciated.  Here is brief account of their experiences through the eyes of Dr Wittnich.

It seems like I had just stuffed my aching body into my sleeping bag on the now infamous army cot when my wrist alarm went off…”Good morning Hattiesburg Mississippi”... and another packed day of ..well…anything!! I look over at Steve, out like a light, hate to do it but nudge him awake and agree to meet up at morning rounds at the field hospital, which were actually a series of horse barns on a fair ground that managed to stay upright.

Make sure I have my med-web belt and stethoscope as I head over to mess tent and a decent breakfast compliments of the US army. Bless Them!! Coffee in hand, head to the debriefing area, also staging area, also intake area, also emergency admitting, hey we are lucky to have shelter at all!! News says another hurricane headed our way, well isn’t this going to get interesting, apparently we will debriefed on this new concern at rounds. I decide to slip through the back door so I can get a quick view of some of our late night admissions including 2 minipigs, a few mules, turtles, rabbits and the usual mix of dogs and cats.

They are so scared when they arrive but a decontaminating bath, a good bowl of food and a secure safe place to sleep works wonders. Many of them suffer from post traumatic stress and the volunteers spend all their free time with them, within a few days previously aggressive animals are getting back to their more relaxed cheerful selves, made all the more memorable when a family is re-united with their lost pet(s).

Sadly, this is not the majority of cases and the facility is brimming over with hundreds of displaced and now homeless animals. Once the sun has made its appearance the temperature hits 110oF, heat stroke once again becomes a real concern for both man and beast.  Thank God we have power, so fans are placed everywhere and the medics have set up misting tents for all.

How did we Canadians avoid succumbing…easy, drink gator aid and water at the rate of approximately 1-2 bottles per hour, and hose down your head as often as needed to stay wet. Those that did not were in the med tent. Rule #1: take care of yourself or you are no good to anyone…hum rules to live by at home too!  Firemen from Colorado, hose down the metal roof during the heat of the day, drops the temperature by a few degrees, ice bags and soakings are all we can do for the animals, so far it is enough.

Today’s morning debriefing begins as usual with the prediction of 150 admissions but then takes a new turn with Tornado watches in effect thanks to hurricane Rita! Now we need to try to secure all loose items and batten down. As Rita approaches, some volunteers decide it is time to leave and by the afternoon we no longer have the 8-10 medical staff and are down to 3 DVM’s and a handful of techs.

No matter, at least Steve and I are considered ‘experienced’, having just completed our 4rd day! The eve of Rita making landfall, an 18 wheeler with over 70 additional animals arrives at 10pm. We finish these newest patients off around 2am to find out that we are being evacuated from the facility, Rita has swerved and tornado concerns are mounting. 

After spending the night in a church basement we return to find everything ok. We are nearing the end of our original deployment and one of the FEMA bosses pulls me aside and asks whether OERS would consider allowing us to stay for one more week in order to go to Gulfport, MS, at the epicenter of all the worst damage and help the locals get up and running again.

They feel that they could use “my kind of talents”…hum. So after some discussions with our OERS President, Mike Belanger, coordinating the effort from Toronto, we are on the road to our new assignment. This drive is one we will never forget. As we near Gulfport, the destruction becomes worse, and we miss the turnoff as there are no signs indicating anything anymore, trees are sheared off, roofs are gone and as we enter Gulfport the enormity of what has happened really sinks in, the devastation is unimaginable, the news pictures do not do it justice.

Anyway, no time to waste, on the way down panicked cell calls sporadically come in, a dog hit by a car is on its way to the makeshift shelter and they need us. We arrive, jump out, no time for introductions and get right to it. A sweet dalmatian is in shock, broken pelvis, lacerations possibly internal trauma. This is MASH medicine, use what we can, treat from experience and hope for the best. In the end, this little girl was lucky she made it with flying colors. The next week was a blur of long hours more heat but the southern hospitality was unbelievable.

Despite everything the locals had gone through, their concern for our comfort and welfare while we were there was incredible and it was an honor to work with them and help as best we could. Tara and her staff who themselves lost  a lot and yet never wavered from their concern for the animals and Cheryl who opened up her home to us always making sure we had food and a bed!! By the time we left, their shelter was up and running and the moral was high. Protocols were in place and help was pouring in.

We made many friends, both 4 footed and 2, and hopefully provided some assistance to both. One small terrier who was found under the rubble of his home after 3 weeks - his condition was critical - malnutrition, dehydration and old infected injuries can be fatal if not aggressively treated. He had been blinded by flying debris, yet his resolve and spirit kept him going. Each day he got stronger and was fostered out before the week’s end. It was this little tyke that personified the good in the folks down south.

No one should have to experience what they did, but they showed the world a class act in how they have coped with their tragedy. We have retained one small, well actually not so small, corner of the south in the form of a hurricane survivor, a homeless yellow lab mix who we named, Hurricane.  I know, not very original but appropriate. He is now a dual citizen and on his way to becoming a valued OERS service dog.

In the meantime, he has figured out that the humans sleep on a great soft bed and although we spend good Canadian dollars on a soft comfi dog bed, he is happiest sleeping between my husband and I. Sweet dreams Hurricane, welcome to your new life and thanks for being a part of ours! 

The success of this venture was due, in no small part, to the support provided by all the OERS volunteers who co-ordinated our logistics back in Toronto, and who are all part of this experience. Outreach has many forms and in today’s world, it is great to be a part of an organization such as the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society, that thinks outside the box and cares!

OERS would like to acknowledge the following groups and individuals for their contributions towards the Chewie Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort:

Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences
Ontario Veternary College, University of Guelph

Lindy Barrow
Dr Mary Decaire, Centennial Animal Hospital, Bracebridge, Ontario.
Dr Carol Graham, Graham Animal Hospital, Hillsburg, Ontario