Some of the most heart-filling stories come from the people that were involved in rescuing the pets that were left behind.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, was the first animal rescue team on the ground.
(Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful places on earth and a group that I support. Please visit their web site and find out more about the good work they do).
Everyone that loves their pets needs to have an evacuation plan for their pets just as they would have for their other family members. Don’t let your beloved beasts get lost in the fracas of an emergency situation!
On the Water
August 20, 2010, 8:19PM MT
By Sandy Miller, Best Friends staff writer
Profile of two Best Friends staff who were first on the ground after Hurricane Katrina, Ethan Gurney and Jeff Popowich. Their story is unique.
“Remembering Katrina” recounts, through story and image, the experiences of those who joined in the monumental effort to rescue the thousands of pets left stranded by Hurricane Katrina. This series pays tribute to the rescuers and to the animals’ extraordinary will to survive during one of America’s worst disasters.
Ethan Gurney remembers it being so quiet out there on the water.
“There wasn’t any wind. You didn’t hear any birds,” says Gurney, a Best Friends’ animal care specialist and a member of the Hurricane Katrina rescue team. “Any sound stood out. You could hear dogs inside the houses scratching on the doors.”
Gurney and Jeff Popowich, now Best Friends’ senior animal care manager, were two of the first people Best Friends sent out on the rescue mission after the category 5 hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast back in August 2005, breaking the levees and leaving The Big Easy swimming in a large pool of murky water.
Gurney and Popowich, stationed at the Best Friends base camp in Tylertown, Mississippi, would hit the road before dawn each morning to make it to New Orleans by daybreak. There, they would launch the boat from an off ramp and go block by block looking for dogs and cats who’d been stranded in the flood.
“We’d go through the neighborhoods listening for dogs,” Popowich says. “Once we heard one, we’d go to the house and find a way to get the dogs into the boat.”
Once the boat was full, they’d take the animals back to a staging area, unload them and head back out on the water again. They’d quit at sunset, head over to the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter, grab some food, usually an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) or a Red Cross box lunch, then load up the dogs and cats on transport trucks and take them back to Tylertown. The days were typically 18 to 20 hours long. After a while, Popowich and Gurney began camping out in sleeping bags on the floor of the shelter which gave them a couple more hours of much-needed sleep.
Never judge a book by its cover
The military policing the area also took animals they found under their wings, giving them fresh water and sharing their MREs with them until Popowich and Gurney could pick them up and take them to Tylertown. One day a soldier told them about a rottweiler he’d seen who he was sure had to be a “man-killer.”
The dog was in a fenced yard when Popowich and Gurney first came upon him.
“We opened up the gate to go in, but instead of being eaten alive by the ‘man-killer,’ the dog actually retreated to the backyard,” Popowich remembers.
Popowich followed the dog, which he and Gurney would christen “Le Duke.”
“I walked into the backyard and Le Duke came right up to me and I put a slip lead on him,” Popowich remembers. “It took all of 60 seconds for Le Duke to feel comfortable with both me and Ethan. So, we walked back around to the gate and all the military guys were just standing there in shock. One of them asked me if we’d sedated him since he was so calm.”
Le Duke was so large he wouldn’t fit into any of the crates in the transport van, so Popowich and Gurney put him in the front seat between them where he quickly settled in.
“He seemed content to be sitting in front of the air conditioning vents, eating jalapeno cheese from the MREs and riding around with us rescuing animals the rest of the day,” Popowich says.
Le Duke was later reunited with his person, who showed Popowich a hilarious photo he’d taken of Le Duke, whose real name was Rock. In the photo, Rock, dressed in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, is standing with his paws on the kitchen counter looking as if he’s making breakfast for the cat sitting on the kitchen floor beside him. Watch a video of Rock’s reunion with his person.
“I found out from the guy that he was in the military and after evacuating his family, he was called up to go work at the Superdome,” Popowich says. “He thought he’d be able to come back home and be with his dogs, but he ended up stranded over there and couldn’t get back home. It just goes to show that you can never judge a book by its cover, because it won’t always be a ‘man-killer’ dog or an ‘irresponsible owner’ who abandoned his animals.”
Swimming Chihuahuas and lifelong friendships
Gurney and Popowich rescued plenty of little dogs, too. One particular Chihuahua stands out in Gurney’s mind. When he saw her swimming in four and a half feet of water at an apartment complex, he waded out to try to catch her.
“I thought, ‘No big deal. I can walk faster than a Chihuahua can swim,’” Gurney remembers.
But Gurney had no idea he was walking on a pool deck. When he reached out to grab the Chihuahua, he suddenly found himself underwater.
“The next thing I knew, I was in over my head,” Gurney says. “She ended up swimming out through a rod iron fence.”
Gurney and Popowich went back the next morning and rescued the dog. The swimming Chihuahua was listed on Petfinder.com, but no one ever came to claim her. She was later adopted by Best Friends staff writer Cathy Scott, also a member of the Katrina rescue team, who named her Mia.
Gurney says the best part of the rescue operation was seeing animals reunited with their people.
“That’s what it was all about,” Gurney says. “You’d see how happy these dogs were. The changes in their personalities when they saw their people was just unreal. They went from being scared to everything’s OK.”
There were many lessons to be learned from Katrina. Gurney stresses how important it is for people to have an evacuation plan for their pets just as they would have for their other family members.
Gurney says all of the people who participated in the rescue share a common bond. He and Popowich remain good friends to this day.
“We were pretty good friends before we went, but it definitely solidified our friendship,” Popowich says. “Ethan is one of the few people I trust my life and my dogs’ lives too. He will be a friend for life.”