It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged areas along the Gulf Coast, and prompted the breaking of aged levees that resulted in one of the most costly and catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. History. Among recorded Atlantic hurricanes, Katrina was ranked sixth strongest overall, and resulted in the death of approximately 1,800 people who lost their lives in the actual hurricane and subsequent flooding that occurred. With estimated property damage at $81 billion, Katrina's damage was triple the damage wrought during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
With Aug. 29, 2010 marking the five year anniversary of the date that the hurricane landed in Louisiana as a Category 3 storm, many around the nation are recalling its impact, while others, who remained or returned to the Gulf, continue to pick up the pieces. And as the anniversary arrived, it was also reported that literally thousands of displaced residents of Louisiana and Mississippi are still residing in trailers as reconstruction of their communities continues.
Back home in Smithboro, N.Y., one local resident has been recalling the anniversary of the storm as well, and has been combing through photographs that documented his own experience.
Twenty-seven year old Patrick Cartwright, who lives in Smithboro, N.Y. with his wife Valerie (Vogel) Cartwright who is originally from Troy, Pa., and his children Morgan, 6, and Nickolas, 1, deployed to Hurricane Katrina with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to take on the painstaking task of rescuing and providing shelter for animals affected by the storm.
Working at Stray Haven Humane Society & SPCA, Inc. out of Waverly at that time as the shelter's chief cruelty investigator and rescue team leader, Cartwright was initially contacted by the Red Cross to assist in setting up pet-friendly shelters locally to help animals in and around Tioga County in the event of a disaster such as Katrina.
This request was prompted by the heartbreaking story that made headline news in 2005 about a young child who was being evacuated to shelter by the Red Cross, and was carrying his small white dog that became affectionately known as "Snowball." According to reports at that time, the Red Cross did not allow for animals to be housed in the shelters provided from the storm, and Snowball was ripped from the arms of this young boy - never to be seen again.
The scene from New Orleans of the 9-year-old boy crying because he was not allowed to take his little white dog Snowball was too much to bear, and prompted the signing of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS) on May 22, 2006. This bill passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 349-29, and is now known as Public Law 109-308.
The Public Law requires states seeking Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for evacuating residents facing disasters.
Cartwright took the Red Cross request to his Board of Directors at that time, and made a subsequent agreement that the shelter would deploy and set up shelters at remote locations locally in the event of a disaster.
And then on Aug. 30, 2005, Cartwright received a call from the HSUS, requesting his deployment with a team to the affected Gulf area. The deployment, according to Cartwright, was to be for a two month period of time.
This deployment, which Cartwright accepted, took him into the heart of the affected areas in the Gulf, and challenged his tolerance, and boosted his levels of compassion as they entered into what Cartwright described as an area overwhelmed and devastated by disaster.
Teaming up with Allen Schwartz from Day's End Farm, a horse rescue operation located in Woodbine, Md., Cartwright began his animal rescue duties in Jackson, Mississippi, and then traveled to the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Gulfport the following day.
According to Cartwright, their arrival at the shelter was heartbreaking. Totally flooded, and the structure severely damaged, the team soon learned that 75 of the dogs housed at the shelter had perished. And those that survived, according to Cartwright, were promptly euthanized by the director.
"That was hard," said Cartwright. "We went to areas where there was no place for the animals to go." Cartwright further explained that as difficult as it was to witness what had occurred at the Jackson County shelter, it was evident that the main problem was the lack of planning.
"It was hard to go in and see that," said Cartwright. "There was no chance for those animals ... no plan."
And Cartwright and his team, although assigned to rescue animals, also had an agreement that they would help people first, and animals second. This all encompassing aspect of disaster rescue made Cartwright's assignment even more challenging, emotionally.
"Going in it was hard," said Cartwright of his arrival into devastated areas of the Gulf. "We saw people who had drowned, their bodies clung to debris."
And the team was also challenged when they were directed to go into areas where no one had yet entered. One instance of this was in Waveland, Mississippi. Cartwright recounted a meeting with the Sheriff and Coroner of this small Gulf town, and how they instructed them to go in and search the homes.
The Sheriff showed the team a photo of his wife, who had refused to evacuate. Her remains were eventually discovered.
Cartwright described what the team found upon entering Waveland. "People had no food, no water," said Cartwright, "they were stuck." He talked of finding people who had climbed to higher ground and were stuck in their attics. The animals, according to Cartwright, were everywhere - running loose.
"There were dogs, cats, rabbits, horses - you name it we found it," Cartwright added.
The team soon went to work and set up an animal rescue center at the location of the Jackson County Animal Shelter - the site where the animals initially perished. Once the facility was cleaned and sterilized, the animals began pouring in.
Cartwright described how each animal was photographed and then ID'd, with horses getting numbers sprayed on them, and dogs given paper collars with numbers. The animals were also given medical attention as needed.
And Cartwright described the complexity of the rescue operation, and talked of many who perished with their pets because they refused to evacuate. The team even discovered a woman who they classified as an animal hoarder, who had approximately 100 cats. The woman, who refused to evacuate, perished alongside her cats.
But with every story that depicts the struggles experienced in rescue efforts comes a happy ending. Such was the case for a young Rat Terrier and his beloved family.
According to Cartwright, while the team was in Wakeland they got lost because the roads had washed out. When they turned to head down a visible road they spotted a small Rat Terrier that was scared, and shivering.
Transporting the small dog back to the shelter, the veterinarian told the team that the dog probably wouldn't make it through the night. But the next day, much to the team's surprise, the dog was moving around and was quite lively.
The following day a family arrived at the shelter looking for their three dogs - a black dog, a yellow dog, and a Rat Terrier. Once they described the dogs, the team brought out the Rat Terrier.
"As soon as the dog saw the family, it was high emotions," said Cartwright. "It was great."
But for the animals that did not reunite with their owners, they were eventually shipped out to other states for housing and to be placed for adoption. Upon Cartwright's return to New York he even learned that 300 of the animals were heading the same way. Cartwright also explained that most of the animals shipped out were eventually adopted.
"It was bad for the owners that couldn't locate their animals in time," said Cartwright of the relocating of animals, "but it's good that the animals didn't have to die down there."
One of the biggest things that hit Cartwright during his experience in the Gulf was the lack of preparedness demonstrated. Certified in many areas of expertise to include his recent certification as a FEMA Emergency Management Professional, Nationally Certified Wilderness EMT, Pet First Aid Instructor, Fire Police certification, and over a dozen other certifications, Cartwright offered his own assessment of this lack of preparedness.
"We would see one house standing in an entire community," said Cartwright. "Those homeowners took money from previous hurricanes and rebuilt their homes to hurricane standards."
Cartwright further described these standards, to include installation of a safe room, and having generators on-hand with plenty of food and water. Cartwright also talked of personal protection. With the looting that occurred following the disaster, Cartwright explained that many residents were keeping firearms on-hand to protect their remaining belongings.
Cartwright described these typical scenarios that were evident following Katrina, and how even months, and years later the devastation was still apparent.
"Long after the waters receded," said Cartwright, "you might see something like a big barge by the highway, stranded, with no water around it."
But back at home now, and working as a volunteer firefighter for the Nichols Fire Department, Cartwright is putting his focus in helping his own community, and was even called to action following the floods that hit the area in 2006.
Just days following the massive flood that hit the Southern Tier of New York and Northern Tier of Pennsylvania region, Cartwright was called to action, once again, to rescue animals.
At a mobile home park in Endwell, N.Y. that experienced several feet of flood waters, Cartwright explained how the owners were evacuated, but then not allowed to return for their animals. Initially, according to Cartwright, the fire officials were not going to let the rescue team in to remove the pets. But after concluding that the refusal to let residents secure their pets would result in animal cruelty charges, the officials let them enter the park.
Fourteen dogs, according to Cartwright, were rescued. Cartwright also worked with a team of volunteers to rescue horses from the Cannonhole area in Waverly during that same flood in 2006.
Although Cartwright is no longer employed by Stray Haven, he continues to educate himself in areas of emergency preparedness and operations, and also serves as a weather spotter for NOAA. Cartwright is also continuing his education to gain qualifications to become a County Emergency Manager, and keeps a close eye on weather patterns in the area.
"We haven't had major issues lately," said Cartwright, "but one major storm could cause significant damage." Cartwright also noted that in any major disaster, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, animals, and owners of animals are the most vulnerable.
With the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, these thoughts are fresh on Cartwright's mind. "I've been thinking about this all week," said Cartwright.