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.
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.
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.
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.
Trackbacks are links to weblogs that reference this post. Like comments, trackbacks do no appear until approved by us. The trackback URL for this post is: http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451b0aa69e200d8347428ff53ef