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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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WAVELAND, Miss. – They were some of Hurricane Katrina’s smallest and most helpless victims, alerted to the power of the storm long before most people but unable to flee on their own.

The Aug. 29 storm and its aftermath proved deadly for the inhabitants of the Waveland Animal Shelter, the only such facility in Hancock County, as well as heart-breaking for many pet owners. Director Renee Lick said most of the animals in the shelter at the time of the storm died, but declined to provide an exact figure.

The tragedy was a small one when held up against the unfathomable measuring stick set by Katrina. No one is even willing to hazard a guess at how many pets and other animals died in the storm, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates more than 15,000 dogs, cats, horses, livestock and other animals were rescued in the roughly 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast hammered by the hurricane and whisked off to more than 300 shelters in more than 40 states.

But the deaths and destruction in Waveland continue to reverberate, and elected officials and animal rights advocates are working to ensure the tragedy will never be repeated by pushing for a new facility miles inland that would be managed by the county.

“It would make everybody’s lives better if they had a better animal control shelter here,” said Bay St. Louis veterinarian Charles West, who is on the board of the Friends of the Animal Shelter, which is spearheading the campaign.

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A cat at the shelter reaches through the door of its cage. (John Brecher / MSNBC.com)

A push for a new animal shelter in Hancock County was already under way before Katrina, but it has intensified since the storm flooded the building with more than 5 feet of water, virtually ruining the 30-year-old facility.

A depressing destination

Months later, the shelter, which is located next to a sewage treatment plant and bordered on one side by a drainage ditch filled with fetid water, remains a depressing destination for pets whose owners can't care for them or can't be found.

Under the current difficult conditions, the shelter has a capacity of about 35 animals, Lick told MSNBC.com during a recent tour of the site.

The shelter’s canines are kept in cages around the perimeter of the shelter as well as in indoor kennels. Cats -- some calmly gazing out at visitors, others visibly distressed -- are housed just a few feet away though an open door.

Download form to contribute to Mississippi Animal Disaster Relief Fund (requires Adobe Acrobat)

And operations are threadbare. Lick said the shelter lost two animal control vehicles to Katrina and, although it has been able to add one animal control officer to its staff, still has just four officers -- two for the county, one for Bay St. Louis and one for Waveland.

A slow rebuilding effort
As the region struggles to rebuild homes and businesses, the Hancock County Board of Supervisors has also passed a resolution stating its intent to build a new shelter.

President Rocky Pullman said the shelter “needs to be out of residential (areas). … And we've had animal activists come down and scream at us that this facility is unacceptable ... so we're trying to take the public's concern and move ahead.”

The county is eyeing land in the Stennis buffer zone, an unpopulated area around NASA’s nearby missile testing facility for the new shelter, he said.

Dr. Brigid Elcos, the Mississippi State public health veterinarian, said state officials had applied on Hancock County’s behalf for an ASPCA grant of $500,000 for a new shelter. However, the application stipulated that county authorities develop an emergency fund and plan for any future natural disasters.

“We can address this, we can make a difference, we can do it this time,” said Elcos, who added that the destruction in Hancock County was “probably the worst” along the Gulf Coast.

The Bucks-Mont Bay-Waveland Katrina Relief Project, a Pennsylvania-based group comprised of community leaders, also is conducting a fundraising drive to help build the new animal shelter for this shattered town.

Lick conceded the current shelter is crumbling and said she fully supports the drive for a new facility.

Coming up with a plan
The state had been working with local authorities for several years prior to Katrina in an attempt to formulate emergency evacuation plans, but had yet to develop anything concrete when the storm pounded the coast, according to Dr. Jim Watson, the state veterinarian with the Mississippi Board of Animal Health.

Katrina provided a fresh impetus for those efforts.

“We’re trying to encourage the local community … to have a plan so that we won’t be in a position where we (state authorities) have to go down and rescue animals in an emergency-type of situation,” Watson said.

Doll Stanley, the Mississippi-based regional director of the nonprofit animals rights group In Defense of Animals, said the lack of disaster plans was accompanied by a broad failure to coordinate rescue efforts throughout the Gulf Coast region.

“The disaster that followed the disaster was as disheartening to me (as the storm),” she said.

Several people interviewed for this article said that a new animal shelter – well-equipped and far out of the flood zone – would help prevent a repeat performance in Hancock County.

“If we had a better animal shelter, we wouldn’t have had half the problems we’d had in this storm,” said West, who referred to the current shelter as a “dead end,” said.

Safety for animals can also translate to safety of people, Elcos said

“One of the lessons from all of this is that a lot of people won’t evacuate if they can’t take their pets and don’t know where to go,” she said.

Waveland shelter criticized

Stanley, of In Defense of Animals, is highly critical of the Waveland shelter’s handling of the animal crisis after Katrina, saying that officials failed to actively coordinate with the many outside animal protection groups that poured in after the storm. She said she plans to urge the City Council to fire Lick and close the shelter.

Lick responds by saying she and her staff were only able to work with resources they had and that, besides, planning for an unprecedented disaster like Katrina was impossible.

“Everything has their feelings and their criticisms on this,” Lick said. “We’ve never had this type of disaster. … It’s sad, but this was a learning experience.”

West, who runs two of the four veterinary clinics in the county, agreed the shelter had problems before the storm, but said he believed they were “institutional” and weren't attributable to any individual.

Lessons learned
Watson, the state veterinarian, said that Katrina had forced increased coordination between the state and local levels, which he hoped would help officials and animal owners plan ahead for future emergencies.

Officials said the relationships forged with other shelters across the United States in Katrina’s aftermath would better enable animals to be cared for and transported out of the area in a timely manner.

“We’ve never had and hope we never have to go through this again. … Now we know what to do the next time,” said Lick, a no-nonsense former Waveland police officer.

Tara High, director of the Southern Mississippi Humane Society in nearby Gulfport, agreed.

“In the future, we’ll definitely be able to have more options in evacuating our animals and having a plan in place to help the community deal with its pets, for people to know their pets will be safe,” she said.

Caring for the survivors
For now, though, attention has been turned to rescuing and caring for the storm’s traumatized survivors, both inside and outside of Gulf Coast shelters.

“They’ll freak out if you go up and try to fill up their water bucket," Lick said. "… (They) act like they’ve been beaten.”

“You know the ones that went through it (the storm) and the ones that didn’t,” she added.

West, the veterinarian, said he had seen an increase in respiratory illness – an affliction also seen in Gulf Coast residents -- since Katrina. He said he had also treated many dogs whose toenails had been pulled off on the metal steps of FEMA trailers. On the positive side, West said he had seen a decrease in pets struck by cars over the past several months.

Just as many Gulf Coast residents who have relied on help from the government and nonprofit groups after their lives were shattered by Katrina, local animals also need a helping hand.

“Something I tell people is that it’s not just the animals – we’ve got to come back to them too,” Lick said.

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330 COMMENTS

I am terribly dissapointed in you, your editor, and MSNBC for writing "The Tradgedy was a small one when held up when held up against the unfathomable measuring stick of Katina" They are one in the same both equally devastating, why is it that because they have four legs that what they suffered is any less devestating for them or there owners. To most animal lovers, there pets are there family and to some even more important to family. You have no idea how the loss of a pet can truly affect an animal lover.

I too think its ashame that people have forgoten the animals, I would like to know if I can donate a few dollars to help the animals who should I send money to?

Great story. So happy that you reported on this important topic that so often gets overlooked. Great work and writing!

is there a website we can view pictures of the animals for adoption?

To quote Gandhi " A country is only as good as the way it cares for it's animals".

Is there an address where I can send a donation specific for the Animal Shelter discussed in this article?

As an animal lover and animal shelter volunteer, I was, in some respects, more rivited over the fate of the anmals who couldn't flea than I was of the humans who couldn't. At least the humans could make a choice on where to go and be reasoned with (presumably); animals are usually the last to be thought of when it comes to resuce, particularly the ones that end up at shelters. I am glad to read this update on the shelter situations in Hancock County. Thank you!

awesome arcticle :) so happy for all the work that is being done - truly amazing :)

Such a sick feeling being a pet owner to see such suffering. Please keep writing these articles. These pets need as much donations as humans do- if not more.

I could not agree more with the other comments about this article down-playing the devastation to animals. At least humans could escape this horrific storm. What about the poor, neglected animals tied up behind houses? Their experience back in August was just as traumatizing as any person...

I adopted a dog from the hurricane, Lucy, a 4 1/2 year old black lab mix. Its not clear to me if she is a hurricane survivor or was just in an overcrowded shelter because of the hurricane, but we were happy to take her in either case. She's a great dog. I would encourage anyone able to adopt one of these pets to do so.

I totally agree with Doe & Kris... simply becasue they are pets, doesn;t make them less important int he world. I myself have three labradors, and would die before I let anyhitng happen to them. They are a part of my family, more then most of the humans are in my family. You should be ashamded of yourself. Its a shame that these pets are disposable to some people.

I truly hope that the new shelter will be built and that caring people who have experience in dealing with animals, especially those who have been traumatized, will be hired. Every effort should be made to build this facility. Animals enrich our lives and they should NEVER BE FORGOTTEN!

I can still remember and will probably never forget a news cast I was watching back then. The reporter and his crew were floating around in a small boat and they commented on the many animals waiting to be rescued. At that moment a dog was swimming to their boat hoping to get rescued and they just ignored the dog. I still get choked up thinking about it. It was not that they didn't have the room, they didn't have the heart! How anyone can turn their backs on these helpless animals is something I will never understand simply because there is NO excuse. People have a voice but the animals only have their eyes to communicate with and if no one is looking... then what?!

It's about time that we start taking responsibility for all creatures. The trauma that the four-legged victims have endured from this tragedy is just as real and devastating as human loss. I have 3 dogs, 3 cats and numerous fish. I would no more leave them alone to endure a natural disaster than amputate my own arm. Let's use this lesson to improve the lives of all animals.

The "small stick" reference was only comparing the loss of the Waveland shelter to the loss of animals across the entire regions struck by Katrina. It doesn't appear that the writer was trying to minimize or imply that animal suffering was undeserving of attention.

I appreciate those who care for our four legged friends. They too need our support in this crisis. They are often forgotten by most but it is good to see even a few still care and reach out to help in anyway possible. I have animals of my own (4 cats of my own not including another cat and a dog owned by roommates in the home) and I would do anything in the world that needed to be done to ensure their safety and survival in any way. Even if it meant them eating and not myself. Often childless persons animals are their children and in this crisis people seem to understand why that is. It is also great to see an article that is only for the animals affected by the hurricane.

wonderfull story please keep us informed about the animals, they are god's creation to.

i just want to say thanks to the many people who have helped and are still helping the animals left behind. please understand that some people are still upset that this happened. granted no one could've known it was going to be this bad and this long. please be patient and help where you can. hopefully this experience will set up something to where people won't have to choose between their safety and that of their loved ones.

You can send donations for Katrina animals to United Animal Nations, Humane Society of the U.S., ASPCA, Noah's Wish, Best Friends Society, and American Horse Council (working with American Quarter Horse Assoc.). Also American Association of Equine Practitioners, North Shore Animal League, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. PetFinders is a source for information about Katrina pets.

what do i need to do if i am interested in helping out these animals as well as the shelter or adopting animals?

I agree with Doe - everything related to Katrina was a tragedy - especially the devastating situation concerning the animals. It is our responsibility to care for the animal population, whether they are in our homes or our shelters. My daughter and I went to help with animal rescue after Katrina and I still relive the heartbreak every day. We had three dogs before I went and we adopted one of the "Katrina dogs". As Doe stated, he is now a member of our family. I only wish I could have done more! There is no measuring stick that should indicate this was a small tragedy!

It's so sad about the animals. I wish I could adopt one of them, but i'm in NYC and not able to reach them.

I am terribly disappointed in the fact that no one has address the point of disaster planning to keep family together! These animals and their owners are family to each other! They need each other for the support & love to get through such a tough time. Why can shelters not be made equipped to handle families with members that are four legged or feathered or whatever! I know it is asking alot to expect to receive help when a disaster strikes, but come on you wouldn't help one person that is able bodied and leave a handicapped person to fend for themselves! I'm not saying a handicapped person is infierer, but neither are the animals. FAMILY is FAMILY no matter what crede, color or number of leggs or feathers it has! Now, this is the year 2006 the age of technology...let's act like we have the brains god gave us and come up with a solution!

We can no longer sit back and accept the deaths of these animals as just a small aspect of the tragedy of the storm. The south must move up with the rest of the country and improve animal welfare. Other areas please step in and help. Politics has no place here. Why weren't the shelter animals moved? Communities must put differences aside and help each other, not just for the storm, but for the good of the animals at all times. People must change their attitude animals, they are not disposable and they cannot take care of themselves in situations like this one. This is not the last hurricane we will deal with, but please let this be the last time there are such a high number of animal deaths. .

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