Today, I write from Baton Rouge, still sultry and hot even as the calendar pushes into autumn and as the people of this state hold their breath from week to week to see if their beloved LSU football squad can continue its perfect season. As the son of a former football coach, I understand their state of mind—their blend of joy and hope and anxiety.
Though tropical, it’s not nearly as hot and uncomfortable as it was in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, when Mother Nature delivered a devastating blow followed by stultifying weeks of 100-degree heat and humidity, and then a second punishing hit in the form of Hurricane Rita.
© The HSUS/Chad Sisneros
A DCI inmate cares for a dog after Katrina.
For this trip, I'll be in Louisiana for three days, and then off to Mississippi. In all, it's a five-day, whistle-stop tour of the two states as part of The HSUS’s commitment to leave the Gulf Coast stronger than it was before Katrina hit.
This morning, on the steps of the Louisiana capitol, I announced an HSUS grant of $600,000 to the Dixon Correctional Institute—a medium security prison in Jackson, La.—to develop an emergency pet shelter and veterinary medical clinic. I was joined by DCI warden Jimmy LeBlanc and by Drs. David Senior and Joe Taboada from the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. We are partners in this multi-faceted, innovative project to enhance the state’s disaster preparedness capacity.
In the early days of September 2005, as so many people were rushing out of Louisiana's stricken areas, HSUS staff and volunteers were rushing in. During the chaotic weeks after Katrina, The HSUS forged bonds with DCI and LSU. LSU managed a pet shelter that we supported, while DCI helped shelter and house rescued pets after we had run out of room at the massive emergency shelter in Gonzales, La.
It’s an understatement to note that Louisiana has occupied a lot of my mind space in recent years. Before Katrina, we and our colleagues at the Louisiana SPCA had already been in a pitched battle to outlaw cockfighting, and it was a slug fest. And then Katrina hit, putting disaster response front and center and so much else on temporary hold.
I have been through a lot in my life, but nothing was as stressful and difficult as the weeks and months after Katrina and Rita. I’ll never forget my weeks in Louisiana, and all of the heartache, complications, emotions and toil. And I’ll never forget the good that was done, either. It was an emotional maelstrom.
© The HSUS
Holding a puppy rescued after Katrina.
There was virtually no government safety net for animals—no plans, no policies, no capacity to help the pets trapped in homes or wandering the impact zone, to say nothing of the farm animals, horses and other creatures affected. The federal government and the states had hardly considered the plight of animals in disasters.
As a result, the disaster response for animals—every phase of it, including the rescue, sheltering, transport to safe locations, reunions and public communications—fell almost entirely upon the shoulders of the local humane organizations and the broader humane community.
One group that did not disappoint was the American public, which responded with generosity beyond any expectation. On the news every day, they saw teams of rescuers literally saving animals by the dozens and the hundreds. They urged us on, many of them commenting that the animal rescue response seemed better coordinated than the human rescue effort.
Those of us on the ground knew that there was no cause for pride. And any celebration had to be short-lived because for every animal saved, there were a dozen in despair. We saw our own shortcomings more clearly than the nation could. The circumstances for animals were dire and the logistical complications almost beyond solving, but every day we struggled to keep up, to improvise, and to help as many animals as we could.
Since Aug. 29, 2005, The HSUS has spent or committed $31.4 million for disaster relief—an unprecedented investment. This week, we are announcing plans to spend an additional $4 million ($1 million of this from an outside partner). The projects we are announcing over the next few days should stir your pride and make your heart race. They honor our commitment to this region and to its people and animals.
We’re implementing big plans to fight the pet overpopulation problem and to rebuild the humane infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi. Thanks to efforts last year in the state legislature and the Congress, there are state and federal laws to include animals in disaster planning—establishing policies that will never again leave animals so vulnerable and so entirely dependent on the charity and resolve of humane organizations.
As I embark on this week’s brief but important journey—with professional colleagues I’ll introduce as the week goes on—I feel a new day is dawning on animal protection in these states, and I am hopeful. We helped pass legislation in Louisiana this year to outlaw cockfighting—a law that will go a long way toward stamping out this cruelty. I sense that the people of Louisiana and Mississippi have a deeper appreciation for animals than ever before. When you experience vulnerability and loss, you tend to empathize more with the plight of others, including animals.
Thanks for your help and support, and you’ll hear more dispatches from the Gulf Coast in the coming days.