Three Days in Louisiana

As news editor of The Horse, I had asked myself: How was I to communicate to readers the enormous amount of devastation Hurricane Katrina caused to everything in her path? Her effects on people and property have been extensively covered in the mainstream news media, but her wrath was no easier on animals. And early on, there was precious little information about their plight because no one could get into storm-ravaged areas to investigate.

Eventually, word on horses started trickling in...63 rescued here, 60 perished there. It was an emotional time, punctuated by goose bumps, as when I heard the particularly harrowing story of the carriage animals' rescue (see page 23), or shed silent tears as I was told about touching reunions or barns full of drowned horses. All the while, I was swimming in e-mails from concerned readers who were missing horses or offering help.

Finally, it was decided that I would travel to Louisiana. Covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from more than 740 miles away was one thing...seeing it in person was quite another, starting with the ghost town that the New Orleans International airport had become.

I arrived expecting to learn how leadership roles in this colossal effort were decided, how different committees were organized, and how a master plan had been executed. There was a plan...right?

Well, the simple truth is that it's impossible to outline a finite response to something of Katrina's magnitude. As coastal residents know, every hurricane has its own whims as it makes landfall; a two-mile turn in the hurricane's direction can mean the difference between bone-dry ground and nine feet of water.

I learned that the response of Louisiana State Univeristy (LSU) and hundreds of selfless volunteers in southern Louisiana evolved as different people saw specific needs. It really wasn't that organized in the beginning, and there probably were chaotic times. But that's unavoidable when eight trailer loads of dehydrated, injured, tired horses and mules arrive at a staging facility at once. "Organized chaos" is really what it was. Every individual involved worked tirelessly--and they are still working--toward their goal, which is providing rescue and relief for horses and reuniting horses with owners. And the efforts worked. When Rita hit, more specific plans were already in place to help respond to horses' needs.

The visit really drove home the tragedy of this situation and the inspiring efforts of relief workers. After you've seen and heard a man tell you that all 26 of his horses are dead and he's struggling to keep some of his remaining cattle alive; after you've glimpsed your second dead horse of the day (but from a preview of photos you know many more are out of your line of sight); after you've heard a 10-year-old boy list his pets that were lost or killed in the storm--it becomes very real.

Often, my interview subjects became misty-eyed or tragically stared off into space during our interviews. I felt guilty after turning the recorder off--they excavated these stories for me and I had no way to make it better. I was just an outsider, documenting this event.

My final day in Louisiana caught me off guard. As I was on my way to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., Ky Mortensen, LSU's Equine Health Studies Program director of development, called and asked if I could pick up two dogs that had lost their owners--they couldn't stay at the LSU shelter because it was a Red Cross center for animals with owners.

The small dog's crate fit in my rental car; the bigger dog's crate didn't. So a young 80-pound frightened black Labrador Retriever was plopped in the back seat alongside his friend's crate. Eventually, he climbed to the front seat and into my lap, licking my hands and face as I tried to keep him in the passenger seat. In the back seat, the other dog whined in her crate. Every dog I'd met that week was traumatized, and so were these two.

I had about 20 minutes to bond with this loving Lab after arriving at Lamar-Dixon and explaining these dogs' circumstances to several officials. I think the Lab trusted me. But as I took him to the intake center, he got scared and began barking. As I turned him over to volunteers, the tears finally came. I wasn't just an observer anymore.

Without any thought, I gave them my phone number in case he isn't claimed. We'll see what happens.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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