June 1st of every year marks the official beginning of Hurricane Season in America’s coastal states. In October of 2002, the first year we moved to Louisiana, Hurricane Lili was predicted to hit Lake Charles, the city we now called home. A good number of townspeople evacuated an hour east, to the city of Lafayette…but at about 4am the storm veered and hit most of the area around Lafayette. Lake Charles experienced a beautiful sunny day and didn’t get one drop of rain.
Before this storm, we all watched the tv, listened to the warnings, and decided to evacuate before the storm hit, as the experts had advised us to do. Two teen sons, one 22 year old daughter, two Shih-tzus, assorted luggage, food, boxes of legal papers, my husband and myself, were all stuffed into one Ford Aztec. We made it about three hours north, only to encounter some state troopers when we stopped for gas. They were informing motorists that every the hotel room as far as Dallas, Texas, was booked solid and 99% of the gas stations were out of gas. Furthermore, they were shutting down all the exits on the very highway we were traveling on, as the neighboring towns were full and couldn’t take anymore evacuees.
Being transplanted Northerners and new to all this hurricane drama, we asked the troopers what we should do. We were told to go on home and ride it out…unless we wanted to chance getting stuck on the road, with nowhere to go and then, no gas to get back home. So we rode all the way back home, unpacked everything and waited for the storm that went and hit over thataway, instead. Our city didn’t get hit and we were safe; that’s a good thing, right? Well, yes and no.
Hurricane season lasts six months down South. We had to face flinging the kids, dogs, food, clothes, and what-not into that Aztec every time a storm started hovering too close to our part of the Gulf. It became both boring and stressful summer after summer. Our family started to act as the other coastal residents did, complacent that a hurricane was never going to hit us. Then Hurricane Katrina formed in August of 2005, and suddenly the entire world was watching Louisiana, and residents were now saying in great astonishment, “I think it’s going to hit New Orleans!”
As we all know, boy, did it hit. Evacuees came streaming out of the entire New Orleans area and into states as distant as Oklahoma and Ohio. Lake Charles had thousands of these unfortunate people. They camped out in every hotel, motel, church, school auditorium, and filled the Burton Coliseum and the Civic Center beyond capacity. The city even opened abandoned buildings to house them after a certain point, and parking lots became full of tents and people just living in their cars.
One of the biggest scandals of the Katrina nightmare was footage on TV and internet of abandoned animals. Dogs and cats stranded on rooftops, cars, or swimming through dirty water with no place to go, and no one to help them. Shivering and scared, or tragically, drowned…sickening shots of dead dogs and cats floating in the flooded streets. And afterward, hundreds of animals roaming at will, trying to find food or water…animal shelters overwhelmed, trying to locate owners…and all because no pets had been allowed on the city evacuation vehicles, or in the shelters. No one believed such a storm would really hit, and no one had thought about what to do with the animals if it did.
There were many people who died during Katrina because they would not abandon their beloved pets. So when Hurricane Rita threatened Lake Charles only one month after Katrina, everyone remembered what happened to those suffering animals. Officials changed their tune and pets were now allowed to be evacuated with their owners, providing they were leashed or contained somehow. Better scenario, huh? This way, all the animals get to safety and all is well, right?
In theory it should have worked, and it did, for a lot of animals…but many still got left behind and suffered. Not because their owners didn’t want to take them, but because in a lot of instances, it came down to the same thing that had happened in New Orleans. No one thought it could happen to them, therefore, no one had adequately prepared.
People could pack their car with supplies, themselves, their kids and Granny, but suddenly realized they didn’t have room for the dog, cat, bird, or rabbit as well. Folks who owned pickup trucks–but owned no animal kennels–didn’t fare much better. Cats won’t normally stay in the bed of a truck while its moving, much less on an evacuation that could involve hundreds of miles. Pets were left behind. Again. No one had planned enough for this, including me.
Yes, although I had read a lot of prep sites before Hurricane Rita whirled into town, I experienced a sobering reality check when I actually started to make hasty Evacuation Plans and was forced to realize a few things:
1. You can’t make sensible, safe or adequate evacuation plans if the hurricane is only two days away.
2. You can’t fit two 6 foot tall teenagers, two Shih-tzus, five cats, two large dogs (our animal family had increased), two stressed parents and all the recommended survival supplies into one Ford Aztec. Isn’t happening.
3. You can’t buy enough food to possibly last a week for all these animals, because everyone else in town thought about this before you did, and bought it.
4. You can’t find a large enough kennel to fit the dogs in, because all the kennels are gone from every store. You never bought one because you thought you’d never need it, and besides, it took up room in the garage.
5. You can’t board the animals at any vet or boarding kennel within a three hour driving distance, because everyone else had that same idea ( as soon as they saw the hurricane approaching ) and they are overbooked, OR, the vets/kennel people in your town are also evacuating and won’t take in your animals.
6. You’ve called all your local friends who DO have relatives on a farm or something out of town, but you discover they don’t want to babysit your animals, either. (Even if they would take them, you don’t have a kennel to stuff them in and deliver them there; see # 4)
Dreadful thoughts start to run through your head like: which pet would I take if I can only fit one or two in the car?
Don’t raise your eyebrows at this, a breeder friend of mine did just that with her miniature poodles, and she wasn’t the only one who had to make those heart-wrenching choices. She was an older woman, evacuating to her son’s home in Houston–but she had a small car and twelve poodles. She and her husband packed clothes, food, themselves, two pregnant female dogs, a new litter of puppies, and left the rest of the poodles in the house. A tree smashed down through their house during the hurricane and it was a miracle none of the remaining dogs were killed. She didn’t have a vehicle big enough to transport her animals to safety and no one else would take them along.
A man we knew had to leave his Great Dane behind. It would not fit in the truck cab with his wife, daughter, and new baby, and it was impossible to make the dog stay put in the truck bed. This man had no kennel, no cage, and couldn’t locate one. The poor dog survived the storm inside the house, but it didn’t eat for over a week until the family was able to return home. They had left dry dog food out in bowls, but it was a one story house and had taken in a foot of dirty water. The dry dog food turned to mush, then just dissipated in the water over the week. The dog was alive, but skinny, scared and heat exhausted. No power means no air conditioning, and temps were 100 degrees when we were finally allowed to go back to Lake Charles.
My husband and I made the decision, no matter what, that we were taking our animals with us. When the evacuation orders were announced, we decided to use our pickup truck instead of the Aztec. We blew out a credit card and paid $5000 for the last trailer in Lake Charles. Seriously, the last one, and it was a small trailer. Price gouging before a disaster exists, in spite of officials stating this is not allowed. A town under evacuation orders doesn’t have the law enforcement to keep track of local merchants that may double or triple prices on something people desperately need. The cops are all too busy trying to handle the panicky citizens and secure the city.
We hitched the trailer to the pickup, loaded our two very large dogs (a Kuvasz and an Irish Wolfhound) into the last king-sized cage I had found at PetSmart. I had literally stood on the box this cage was in, so no one would try and take it from me, until I got a stock boy to haul it up to the cashier. The store was a zoo; throngs of people grabbing everything they could, and I was taking no chances.
Back home, we loaded five cats into one medium kennel (the only one I had, used for trips to the vets office) with a litter box and wedged this in the trailer with boxes, supplies, a tent, gas cans and the giant dog cage. One tall teenager crammed himself and the two Shih-tzus (wedged next to a cooler of ice and water) onto the narrow back seat of our extended truck cab.His equally tall brother had to lie down on the floor under his brothers feet on the truck floor, sandwiched amongst pillows and blankets. They switched positions once in awhile during the 26 hours it took us to evacuate to Pennsylvania, but they were not happy campers. We weren’t allowed off the highway except at designated spots where gas stations actually had fuel. No hotel rooms were available clear up past the state of Kentucky.
The cats were quiet in their kennel; all five had somehow managed to squeeze themselves into the litter box. The big dogs, normally the best of friends, stressed out at one point and had a terrible fight in the cage. We had to pull off on the shoulder of the road and throw water over them through the bars to break it up. As I was standing in the grass, shouting at the dogs to knock it off, fire ants (this was Louisiana, remember) swarmed over my sneakers and onto my ankles, biting and stinging me terribly. That trip is etched in my memory for all time. It was a horrible, nerve wracking experience for us all, and one I never want to repeat.
After driving 26 hours with no sleep, we finally arrived at our son’s home in Pennsylvania–utterly exhausted and miserable. We couldn’t go home for ten days because no one was allowed back into the city. Lake Charles had sustained significant damage and authorities advised the citizens to stay away. The city had no power, no water, no flushing toilets, no food…trees were down by the tens of thousands along with the power lines, and flooding was massive.
When city officials said the evacuated residents could return, we decided against taking the animals back with us. Neighbors who had made it back to town were kind enough to email us photos of our property, so we knew what we were facing. The power was still out, and all the trees in our front yard had been knocked over, uprooting the underground water pipes. All the back yard trees and fencing had blown down, and since we lived on the bayou, no fencing meant the alligators could get on the lawn. Yes, we had alligators.
So we left pets and teenagers with my oldest son and headed home to the utter destruction in our city. Clean-up took months. We eventually had to adopt the cats out, as we couldn’t possibly bring them home. One dog went to a friend in Pennsylvania, the other to a friend of my sons. The Shih-tzus were small enough to be managed in my son’s house and were not placed.
We were lucky that we had a truck, could afford a trailer, located a cage big enough to hold our dogs, and had a relative that could take care of them until things settled down. But a lot of people didn’t have that backup, and their animals suffered, were abandoned, and I am sure some didn’t make it through the storm and its aftermath alive.
We were lucky that we only had two children to evacuate with this time, as our daughter had gone to Baton Rouge with a friend. We were lucky I’d managed to find a dozen small gas cans, and lucky we found gas to fill them with, so we could fuel the truck and keep going. We were lucky in so many things, because our preparations had been woefully inadequate, even after witnessing what happened during Hurricane Katrina.
I learned a hard lesson from that event. I still count my blessings we made it out and none of our pets were left behind, injured, or died. It taught me that complacency can hurt people and pets you love. It taught me you can’t depend on anyone to help you during such times; that you better make plans to ensure all those in your care are safe should such an event occur again. Not just hurricanes, but anything that can threaten family or the pets we profess to love. Floods, blizzards, fires, hurricanes, name your disaster…if you think such things can never happen to you, let me assure you, they can and do happen.
So take a good look at your animal family. Take a good look at that cat you’ve had for 15 years, or the dog who never leaves your side. If a storm threatened, or any disaster, ask yourself how safe can you keep these animals that trust you to take care of them? Humans don’t get left behind when a family has to evacuate due to a natural disaster, but pets and animals often do.
So what are you doing to make sure it doesn’t happen to yours?