Thank You, May I Have Another

Trip Start Sep 22, 2005
Trip End Mar 03, 2006

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Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Monday, April 10, 2006

When I first boarded the plane for New Orleans last September, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was the most moving and painful experience of my life, and I was changed. But my plan remained the same: Go to Mexico, learn how to teach English, get a job.

But like so many Katrina volunteers, I could not easily forget the things I had witnessed. I talked about them, wrote about them, dreamt about them. I processed the experience and tried to move on. But one thought kept needling its way back in: I have to go back. They're still out there. Not locked in homes, perhaps, but roaming the empty streets, searching for their families, desperate for food. The crisis is not over yet. Animal Rescue New Orleans, a group that formed when the larger organizations pulled out, needed help coordinating operations on the ground. I didn't really know what that would mean, but I wanted to do whatever was needed. On November 9, I left Walnut Creek again and drove to New Orleans.

What it meant, basically, is that I was about to be hit with a ton of bricks. ARNO was formed in reaction to a crisis, and when I arrived they were still in crisis mode. Sleep and food were luxuries, and Holly and I were "on" 100% of the time. Most of our time was spent managing the volunteers who went out feeding and rescuing the animals. Every minute brought a new emergency. We were operating out of a moldy and abandoned hair and nail salon (and dry cleaners, oddly enough) with a leaky roof. Keeping the animals safe, comfortable and healthy was a constant challenge, not to mention maintaining proper documentation on each one. The volunteers worked their butts off, filling more than 3000 feeding stations throughout the city and rescuing more than 2000 animals from October 1 through the end of the year. Each night, we'd load a big truck full of animals and send them to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary temporary shelter in Mississippi. Although I later had some trials with Best Friends, I am so impressed with their commitment to the animals. They accepted every kind of animal you can imagine, all the way to the straight-up ferals, and they stuck by their no-kill policy. I felt good about every animal we put on that truck.

But the day came when they called and said, "Sorry, no animals today." It was no problem-they had filled up before. These moratoriums usually only lasted a day or two. So we told our trappers to bring in only the urgent cases, but we kept a flexible definition of "urgent." But the days passed, animals came in, and no animals went out. We tried to tighten restrictions on the animals people could bring in--but in a disaster zone, every case is urgent. And volunteers knew, whatever we might say, that we would not turn an animal away. So we had a bazillion animals and nowhere to take them.

Best Friends stepped in and solved their own capacity issues. They offered to form a partnership with ARNO, whereby they would open a temporary shelter in the city and coordinate all animal care and transport, while we would coordinate the city-wide food program and the trapping/rescue effort. They rented a huge and beautiful space in Metairie called "Celebration Station" (an old family-entertainment-type place), and they brought down staff from their Mississippi shelter and their sanctuary in Utah. Suddenly we had space for hundreds of animals, enough people to do the work, and decent living conditions for staff and volunteers (Flushing toilets! Showers! Heat!) Ah, what a hopeful time...
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