Animals, people still recovering from hurricane

Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

A veterinarian from New Orleans and a casino employee from Las Vegas are part of a wide net of people who have helped animals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Brian Ghere and Carol Gripentog have never met, but they both have tales to tell about the disaster and the recovery. Here are their stories from September and October:  

September: Ghere

As the hurricane approached, Dr. Ghere said, his practice in New Orleans initiated the usual evacuation policy. 

"Once we knew this was not a drill—that this was the big, bad one that we had prepared for for years—I made some contacts," he said.

Dr. Ghere finally called the state veterinarian's office, which was coordinating animal rescue efforts. He took part in planning who would rescue animals and who would run shelters. Then he and Dr. Missy Jackson were among the first veterinarians to go back into the New Orleans area.

"She worked at an animal hospital in New Orleans where they had 70 animals that they couldn't get out, and they had five people staying and taking care of them," he said.

The two veterinarians drove to the clinic in a rental truck.

"The people were OK, and the animals were OK. They were shaken, and they were ready to leave," Dr. Ghere said. "We did it in one trip, and it was very creative."

They loaded animals into carriers and then loaded the carriers into the truck. Afterward, Dr. Ghere lost track of how many trips he made into the city.

"We went in every day for—I can't keep track of how many days I did that—10, probably 10 days," he said.

Dr. Ghere worked from daybreak until 1 or 2 a.m. His principal responsibility was helping veterinary clinics, he said, but he also participated in plenty of individual rescues.

"People would say, 'I left my animals in my house, and I didn't think it would be this bad,'" he said. "There were more cases where they were OK—especially early on."

Eventually, Dr. Ghere had time to start getting his practice and his family's lives back together. He and his wife, two daughters, three cats, and a dog were staying with relatives in Baton Rouge, La.

"We're all very cozy over here," he said.

Dr. Ghere went back to New Orleans again to survey the damage to his practice and his home. The practice had sustained damage to the roof and interior. His home had flooded with about 5 feet of water.

September: Gripentog 

Even living in Las Vegas, Gripentog had some sense of the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi. And she wanted to help the animals.  

Two years ago, she and a couple of friends who also work at Station Casinos Inc. had formed the group Wheels of Hope to help people's pets and horses after the wildfires in California.

"We did a little drive, got a bunch of products," Gripentog said. The group delivered products to people in California through the Helen Woodward Animal Foundation in Del Mar. "They were in tears when that first truck came in."

This year, as the hurricane approached New Orleans, Gripentog and her friends started exchanging e-mail messages. They wanted to help the animals again.

"We knew it was very dangerous, and we didn't know what was going on," Gripentog said. They tried to volunteer their services and the supplies they'd collected, but the only reply was, "Just send money."

Then they sent an e-mail message about their truckloads of supplies to Noah's Wish, a nonprofit group that participates in animal rescue and relief during disasters. Noah's Wish asked them to deliver supplies to a temporary shelter near Slidell, La.

Gripentog said her group loaded up a horse trailer with the supplies on the shelter's wish list, gas cans—and a gun, for security.

"It took us 32, 33 hours to get on location," she said. "We did not stop at all."

Gripentog said her group delivered the first substantial supplies, which she found disturbing because she was from so far out of state. The supplies included items such as dog runs, kennels, and water—plus food and personal care items for people.

The temporary shelter housed about 200 animals when Gripentog arrived, and most were rescued animals.

Volunteers were already double-stacking dog carriers.

Later, Gripentog's friend Staci Columbo led a second trip with two rental trucks. The shelter had more than 400 dogs by then, but people were coming to collect some of the animals.

Gripentog returned home to her young son and her own animals. She has horses, and she fosters pets belonging to abused women and children staying at a local shelter.

And soon to arrive at her home were a mother and daughter from Gulfport, Miss., whom the Red Cross had been putting up at a Las Vegas hotel.  

October: Ghere

After Hurricane Rita, Dr. Ghere soon returned to New Orleans to repair and reopen his practice.  

"We lost a lot of pharmaceuticals; we lost an air conditioner. We had damage to our entrance doors and some roof damage," he said. "Some of the repairs we did while we were open. We worked out of the back door for the first day and a half."

Repairs to the broken air conditioner took a few days, with temperatures still in the 90s. However, the air conditioner in the kennels was working.

"The animals were comfortable; the humans up front were warm," Dr. Ghere said.

Dr. Ghere hadn't figured out the details of his insurance coverage. He'd been out of the office for six or seven weeks, but insurance covered only a month of interruption to his practice. Employees and clients were still straggling back to the area.

"Business picks up a little more every day," he said.

Dr. Ghere's family had scattered, though. He was staying at his mother's house in New Orleans, but his mother had relocated for the time being. His daughters were attending school in Baton Rouge, probably for the semester.

His wife, a medical student at Tulane University in New Orleans, was attending Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The family pets went with her. Dr. Ghere wasn't sure whether his wife would return by winter or if she would stay in Houston for the entire school year.

Dr. Ghere said most of New Orleans was still uninhabitable, including the neighborhood around his home. He was taking inventory of the damage to his house.

"My story is not uncommon," he said.

At the same time, his office was taking in clients from other practices that hadn't reopened. Clients continued to bring in animals that had barely survived the disaster, such as outdoor cats.

"We see a lot of animals in very poor condition," Dr. Ghere said. "There are a lot of animals that are being rescued that we're tending to."  

October: Gripentog

In Las Vegas, Gripentog had been standing ready to tend to animals after Hurricane Rita. But the group she'd contacted in Texas rode out the storm. So she and Columbo were about to make another trip to volunteer at the shelter in Slidell. 

"I'm sure it's going to be a lot of kennel cleaning," she said.

Gripentog said the original shelter in Slidell had handled about 80 animals, but the temporary shelter was housing about 800 animals. The shelter was still working on fostering animals and setting up adoptions.

In the meantime, the mother and daughter staying with Gripentog decided to remain in Las Vegas. Gripentog helped the mother find a job and apartment. The woman is originally from the Philippines, and she has no family in Gulfport.

"She's planning to stay permanently," Gripentog said. "There's just nothing left for her in Gulfport."

But Gripentog and Columbo are preparing for the next disaster. They're working with a local veterinarian on formal training in animal rescue and relief. Gripentog wants to volunteer with large animals because she has worked with horses.

And she and her friends hope that the overall disaster response will move more rapidly next time.

"We want to be ready as soon as something comes down," Gripentog said.