Katrina. 10 years later.
As I reflect back on what happened a decade ago my feeble words cannot come close to describing what thousands of souls experienced that fateful day and the following long months. And honestly, no one wants to hear all of that. It’s too much. But I can share a tiny glimpse into what my animal companions and I endured, in hopes of bringing awareness and opening hearts. I hope that by sharing part of my story others can heal, too.
“You cannot un-hear what you have heard. You cannot un-see what you have seen. What you can do, however, is stop wishing that whatever happened in the past hadn’t happened.”
A decade ago the world watched the city, people, and animals of New Orleans suffer unimaginable terror, pain, and destruction. It was one of the biggest national disasters, and total lack of national and local response on record. What did we learn from it all?
One poignant lesson that pet guardians learned the hard way during and after this tragedy was simple but vital: If it isn’t safe for you to stay, it isn’t safe for your animals. They are family members. Do not leave them behind!
I left someone behind.
Fate Took Over
That fateful day, I was at work with my Audubon Zoo colleagues, preparing to welcome hundreds of conference attendees and speakers. We were hosting the annual American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) conference that weekend; an event we had been planning for years. Our guests were arriving that day.
Hurricane Katrina was arriving, too.
As the dismal weather reports continued to flood in, we knew that instead of welcoming our guests with New Orleans sunshine and celebration, they would be welcomed with a category 4 or 5 storm. As we prepared for our guests while listening to the news reports, we soon learned that Katrina was quickly changing course and headed right toward us. We were going to have to relocate ourselves and our pets to the hotel downtown where our conference guests were scheduled to stay.
But as Katrina changed course and complications came up, I was forced to leave home, like so many souls.
I use the word forced, but that’s only how it felt. No one kidnapped me and drove me away from my beloved city. I did what I had to do, and I acted on the best interest of many people and pets. The conference delegates were now stranded in a city that was about to be ravaged by the storm of the century, so we had to get them, and ourselves to safety. On top of that pressure, a dearly beloved canine and her people – my very good friends – needed my help.
The General Curator of the zoo was the leader of our Hurricane Team, and his wife was the director and CEO of the Louisiana SPCA, so they were both staying behind to lead their teams. One of their dogs had recently been severely injured in a dog fight with another dog in their household. Since Dan and Laura were staying behind with their teams, and the combative dogs couldn’t be evacuated together, the canines needed to be split up for their safety. One of the dogs was in really bad shape and needed constant medical care, but it was not an option to leave her with our zoo’s veterinary staff; the Hurricane Team would have their hands full after the storm hit, and they had finite resources.
I adored and greatly respected both Dan and Laura. And when I was needed, I cared for their dogs. File’ (pronounced Feelay), the dog in need, had my whole heart. As if that wasn’t motivation enough to do the right thing, I was also written into their will to take care of their house and dogs, in the event anything happened to them. So of course I would evacuate with File’. Dan and Laura and the dogs were family. I loved them all. I would just add sweet File’ to the overgrowing caravan of people and pets. We would be fine!
Now that a severely injured File’ was in the picture, relocating myself and my animal companions to the hotel downtown with my zoo colleagues and the conference attendees was not an option for me. I had to leave. And we had to leave quickly. From what we were told, we had hours to get out.
I remember very little about how things went down. (Fear creates a muddy memory.) But I vaguely remember being more afraid than I had ever felt before. I remember feeling a panic steadily creeping into my chest. Hell, everyone was scare and on edge. Even my tough, always-oh-so-professional boyfriend and colleagues who were staying behind to “ride it out” as the Zoo Hurricane Team were nervous. And frankly, none of us wanted to leave. That was the last damn thing I wanted to do. This was my home. We were New Orleanians. We don’t run. We deal. We can handle anything.
Katrina, and the epic failure of the city’s levee system, were not something that could be handled.
Eventually I accepted my fate of having to evacuate with strangers, a severely injured dog (who hated cats), three cats; one of whom recently adopted us (and who I wasn’t fond of), and a turtle. I said goodbye to the Hurricane Team and my colleagues, invited strangers into my car, picked up File’ and her medical gear, and left the zoo. We drove to my house a few miles away and started the oh-so-dramatic, pressured-filled process of evacuating; something I had never done (or considered doing) before.
I felt like we were running for our lives.
The curator of mammals was a good friend of mine, so she offered to evacuate her animal menagerie in a caravan behind me so we could be there to support one another. She met us at my house after she gathered her critter crew (and as many conference delegates as she could cram into her car). She arrived at my house to find me wandering around aimlessly with nothing accomplished. None of the cats or turtle were packed up. I was spinning my wheels with nothing to show for it. In hindsight I can see that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was acting out of pure fear and panic. I couldn’t process what was happening, and I was scared.
As if a category 4 hurricane barreling towards us wasn’t enough, one week earlier I had returned from a nightmare of a trip. My family and I had been at the nationally televised trial of a serial killer. This monster, who had tortured and murdered one of our family members, was finally brought to justice. I hadn’t even had time to process all that my family witnessed and learned during the trial.
Being true to my procrastinating nature, I still hadn’t unpacked my suitcase from that difficult trip. As I continued to wander in circles, my friend zipped up my unpacked suitcase, grabbed the cat carriers, and started filling up the bathtub with water (apparently we weren’t taking Little David, the turtle with us). I had no idea what was happening. I was still trying to process what was unfolding at what felt like warp speed.
But I did notice that Samantha, my beloved semi-feral black cat was no where to be found.
Samantha felt and heard the stress of the scene and left the house. This couldn’t have been worse timing.
I didn’t have hours to look for her. I had minutes.
I honestly don’t remember a lot about that day, but I do remember searching for her everywhere inside and outside of the house. I remember yelling for her over and over. I remember hearing panic in my voice. Standing outside shaking her “kitty crack” treats, (the one thing she could never resist) I prayed desperately that she would come running to me.
I finally realized that she had no intention of coming to me with all of the commotion that was happening in the house, in the driveway, and everywhere else around her home. I decided I would wait for her to come to me. I would just sit and wait and she would come eventually, and I would get her into her cat carrier. Then we could leave.
She never came.
Leaving My Beloved Behind
I remember driving away sobbing uncontrollably. I could barely breathe, let alone drive. But I cannot remember why I left without her. I honestly cannot remember the thoughts I had. I have no idea how I was able to justify it in my mind. I don’t know exactly why I felt I had no other choice. (Fear and panic tends to muddy the waters in your mind and you forget these kinds of things.) Maybe I had to make that heartbreaking decision because we had such a small window to evacuate before the storm was on top of us; we would be stuck on the highway and bridges as Katrina came ashore. Maybe it was because of a severely injured dog that needed help. Maybe it was because of the two other cats, the strangers, colleagues, the pressure, and the feeling of having no other choice.
Regardless of why, leaving Samantha was the choice I made that day.
Leaving my dearly beloved Samantha behind is a decision that has haunted me, and pained my heart to this day.
Although she and I were eventually reunited during the third time I came back into the city to look for her, she paid the price of my decision to evacuate without her. The terror and emotional and physical trauma she endured during that month alone eventually took her life a decade later. (One day I will write a fascinating post on how we know this.) Despite our long separation and what she endured, the bright side of it all was that we were reunited. We were both done running, and doing our best to survive. We had to relocated to a new home, but we were finally safe.
Finally back together again.
To this day, all of these events are something that I still cannot recall. I don’t remember any details. In fact, I don’t remember much; my mind won’t let me remember. For years I still had to remind myself that I did find her. I found her. I went to unimaginable lengths to search for her, and I found her. She was found. Alive.
As an educator and behavior consultant, I now passionately teach others that proper planning before disaster strikes can help you remain calm and panic free in an otherwise overwhelming and stressful situation. It will ensure your animal companions’ safety. It will give you peace of mind. I teach this to others now because I had none of that a decade ago. I didn’t know what to expect, and I had no clue what it meant to “be prepared with pets”.
There were very few in our city (and nation) who were prepared.
But the few that were prepared, saved the lives of many, and brought peace and hope to countless souls. These people learned from those who came before them; they learned from the mistakes and success of other who weathered previous storms. They learned how to be ready for the worst. They were ready and they did what no one had ever done before. Those who were prepared, and who responded to the chaos shined like diamonds. These people were some of the greatest heroes our city had ever seen. The Audubon Zoo’s Hurricane Team and the Louisiana SPCA were two of these bright diamonds.
As I reflect back on that life-changing event, I realize that my decisions at the time, and that of our team’s, would indeed be those of the life and death kind and our leadership skills were tested in ways that I wouldn’t have imagined. – Laura Maloney, former director of the Louisiana SPCA
If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. – Dr. Wayne Dyer
As life unfolds, we are bound to have heartache. We find ourselves in situations we would never consciously choose. But if we are wise enough, we learn from our mistakes, and misjudgments. We live and we learn. We make better choices for ourselves and others. We see things in a new light. We have another perspective. We grow. We forgive.
That fateful life chapter changed my life, Samantha’s life, and countless others in innumerable ways – some for the better; some we would gladly give back. Looking back a decade later, I know I would have done so many things differently. I would have never left her. I would have waited for her. But those choices aren’t an option now. All I can do today is ask her for forgiveness. I know she hears me from beyond this world. I know she holds no grievances. I know she has forgiven me.
More importantly, I have forgiven myself.
Two nights ago I laid in bed unable to sleep, thinking about everything my friends, colleagues, and myself witnessed and endured pre and post Katrina. Until the decade “anniversary”, I never allowed myself to dwell on the past. Not until now. As my dear friend Laura so eloquently explains, Like many New Orleanians, I haven’t dug up Katrina memories; we tend to move on rather than look back.
I don’t believe in looking back, but this weekend my past caught up with me. It was time for me to face it.
Laying in bed, sitting there with all of it, I couldn’t look away. I felt panic setting in again. I felt the overwhelming grief, sadness, pain, and judgement of my decision. I needed to understand the “whys?” of leaving Samantha behind. How could I make that choice?!? Why?! How could I?! How did I??
And why was this coming up for me to remember now?
I tried to push it away. It was too difficult. Overwhelming. I asked and asked why, but I never heard the answers I wanted so desperately to hear. So instead, I prayed for the strength to endure the heartache and pain. Suddenly a deep and comforting presence of calm came over me and I clearly heard: Have compassion for yourself.
Compassion for myself was the last thing I thought I deserved.
Then I remembered that compassion is what I freely give to animals, children, nature, my family,friends, clients, and strangers. Compassion heals. Compassion opens hearts. Compassion is how we forgive. After everything I had gone through I needed to give compassion to myself.
As I continued to contemplate the idea of compassion, I remembered that compassion was what helped New Orleans to heal after the storm. Compassion was what we New Orleanians gave to strangers, and what strangers gave to us when we were rebuilding. Compassion was our glue. Compassion was part of our Rebirth.
As I thought about how much love and compassion we felt during the darkest days, I was reminded that no matter what we experienced as individuals in that challenging chapter of life, we overcame it. We made the best of it. We grew stronger within ourselves and with each other.
We came TOGETHER.
We loved hard.
We. Were. Rebirth.
Most importantly, this weekend I finally realized that the only thing we “need to do” is have total and complete compassion for ourselves, in all of life’s challenges. We need to have compassion for what we endured and overcame – and what we are still enduring. No matter what choices we made, we made the best ones we could at the time. We did the best we could do at that time. And that is O.K. There’s no one to blame. No judgement. Only compassion.
As you walk your path in life, my prayer for you is this:
May your soul heal from the challenges in life.
May the heartbreaks and setbacks be brief.
May your heart and mind only know peace.
May you never be afraid to live your life with a full and open heart.
May your heart always be able to love more, give more, and accept more.
May the trials and tribulations in your life be transmuted by the healing fires of forgiveness and love.
May you have an endless supply of compassion for yourself, and remember that you are doing the best you can.
Don’t dwell on the past; Live and love for today.
And in case you were wondering what’s happened to our beloved city Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans is back – as loud and flamboyant as ever !!!