Katrina: stories from the storm

Two local veterinarians, two other veterinarian responders remember the hurricane, a decade later
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

A decade has passed since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, breaking levees and flooding much of the area. The memories are still vivid for local veterinarians and for veterinarian responders—as are the lessons.

Local veterinarians and other residents of the area learned firsthand that a hurricane evacuation is not just a drill, so people need to take pets along. Veterinarian responders, who included locals, learned firsthand what happens when people do not or cannot take pets along.

At the time, laws did not provide for transportation and sheltering of pets alongside human evacuees. The federal Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 requires states seeking assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to accommodate pets and service animals in plans for evacuating residents facing disasters (see story).

A dog being rescued
(Courtesy of FEMA/Liz Roll)
Storm-damaged building
(Courtesy of Dr. Robert C. Gros)

Just after Katrina, Dr. Garry Goemann of the AVMA Veterinary Medical Response Teams was early on the scene at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center north of New Orleans, which handled thousands of displaced animals. Dr. Robert C. Gros lost his local clinic and never rebuilt, but he rebuilt his home and continues to practice in the area. Dr. Robin Brennen of the VMATs was put in charge of veterinary services at Lamar-Dixon. Dr. Brian Ghere repaired his local clinic and rebuilt his house, but only after participating in animal rescue. They each spoke with JAVMA News this year about their experiences.

They are just a few among the many veterinarians who have stories from the storm.

Dr. Goemann

Currently, the VMATs work with state and local governments and animal response teams primarily in a preparedness role, while the federal government deploys the National Veterinary Response Team to respond to disasters. Originally, the VMATs worked with the federal government, which deployed all four teams to respond to Katrina.

Doing disaster work is one of the most gratifying things you can do. There’s nothing like seeing somebody who has lost everything find their dog.

Dr. Garry Goemann of the AVMA Veterinary Medical Response Teams

Dr. Garry Goemann lives in Minnesota but was in Ohio with the VMAT that he commands as the hurricane approached New Orleans. The team was providing veterinary care during a qualification event for search-and-rescue dogs.

Dr. Goemann’s team flew to Memphis, Tennessee, on Aug. 28, then drove to Dallas on Aug. 29. Two and a half days later, the governor of Louisiana approved the VMATs joining the response effort. For two to three days, Dr. Goemann’s team helped assess the situation at dairy and chicken farms outside New Orleans. His team and members of another VMAT headed to Lamar-Dixon after officials turned the expo center into a shelter for displaced animals.

Animal welfare organizations oversaw housing, and the VMATs oversaw most veterinary care. Dr. Goemann said the facility handled about 8,400 animals over the course of weeks. Along with cats, dogs, and horses were birds, snakes, turtles, hamsters, goats, and a potbellied pig. More than 350 animals were in the hospital portion at one point.

“A lot of it was exposure to the bad water and so forth that was there, those kind of issues, lack of food and water for several days before they’d get taken out of the houses and rescued or would get caught and brought up to us,” Dr. Goemann said.

Word of the facility spread, and there were happy endings. As many as 70 animals were picked up in a day by their owners.

“Doing disaster work is one of the most gratifying things you can do,” Dr. Goemann said. “There’s nothing like seeing somebody who has lost everything find their dog.”

But not every story ended happily. In one case, he recalls, disaster responders had rescued a person from a roof but left behind a dog. The responders returned for the dog a few days later, but the VMATs could not save the animal.

The VMATs worked up to 18 hours per day for 33 days without a break. Animal welfare organizations from across the country began taking in animals from Lamar-Dixon. The Department of Defense took over from the VMATs before shutting down the operation in October.

Dr. Goemann said the biggest outcome of Katrina was the PETS Act requiring state and local emergency managers to make plans to deal with animals.

“So there’s been a massive increase in awareness and people dealing with the issue,” he said. “And there’s been the development of many, many more teams. We are much better on a state level at having teams that can take care of the animals and so forth without having to call national teams in.”

Dr. Gros

During Katrina, Dr. Robert C. Gros was president of the Louisiana VMA, and he spoke with JAVMA News then about the response efforts and his own situation. He owned Buccaneer Villa Veterinary Hospital in Chalmette, Louisiana. He and his wife had just built a new home in Mississippi.

As the hurricane approached, Dr. Gros evacuated the animals from his clinic. He and his wife, while themselves evacuating, drove from Mississippi to an emergency clinic in Metairie, Louisiana, where he was a manager, so they could move a dog and a cat, the clinic’s blood donors, up to the second floor.

The wind ripped the roof off Dr. Gros’ clinic in Chalmette. Then the levees broke, and the floodwaters rose above the roof of the building. Weeks later, after Hurricane Rita hit, the building collapsed on one side. Dr. Gros ended up tearing down the clinic and clearing off the land.

Dr. Gros poses with his wife, Gerri, and Peggy Dear
Dr. Robert C. Gros poses with his wife, Gerri, far left, and longtime receptionist, Peggy Dear, for a photo in front of his clinic after Hurricane Katrina. The clinic was a total loss, but all the people and animals were fine. Dr. Gros’ house in Mississippi also sustained damage, but he and his wife were able to rebuild. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Robert C. Gros)

“All the population was gone, basically, and the area was totally devastated,” he said. “In Chalmette, even to this day, there are vast areas where a block might have one or two houses back, and then the rest of them are either gone or boarded up.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Gros said, most of the broader region has rebuilt, and most of the veterinary clinics did reopen.

The emergency clinic did not flood, and the dog and cat there survived. Dr. Gros and another veterinarian spent six weeks getting the clinic back up and running. Dr. Gros also spent time helping the LVMA assess the overall situation, sort donations, and participate in coordination of response efforts.

Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge housed hundreds of pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Most animals at LSU were brought in by their owners or came from clinics that were evacuated. People who had evacuated initially brought their animals to the clinics, and the clinics evacuated when the situation worsened. (Courtesy of Dr. Robert C. Gros)

It took Dr. Gros and his wife six months to rebuild their house. They had almost 5 feet of water on the first floor, despite the house being on stilts. On the second floor, the ceiling collapsed.

Dr. Gros had planned to sell his clinic and partially retire. Instead, he became an associate veterinarian.

“I’m committed to this area,” he said.

His mother, her parents, and her grandparents lived in New Orleans. His father was also from Louisiana, and one of his father’s grandfathers came from France.

“New Orleans, over the past century, has been devastated a number of times with hurricanes,” Dr. Gros said. He was in high school during Hurricane Betsy in 1968, when the roof blew off his family's house. “That took weeks and months to get the city back up and running again.”

He advises veterinarians everywhere to make sure they have enough insurance.

Dr. Brennen

Dr. Robin Brennen lives in New York City but was in Nicaragua on a spay-neuter project when Katrina hit New Orleans. She caught up with her VMAT, the second one to arrive at Lamar-Dixon, for the second week of the deployment.

Dr. Robin Brennen
Dr. Robin Brennen of the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, far right, helped provide veterinary care for search-and-rescue dogs during the response to Hurricane Katrina.(Courtesy of FEMA/Bob McMillan)

On arrival, she walked over to a table, and on the table was a dog that was dying. She realized that the dog had heatstroke. She and another VMAT member found running water to cool down the dog, and she established an airway so the dog could breathe. The dog survived.

Dr. Brennen soon was put in charge of veterinary services at the expo center. She said, “We were functioning by the seat of our pants in the beginning because it was just so overwhelming, but it was time to start establishing operating procedures and policies so that people could start to work more productively and efficiently and try to manage stress.”

An ad hoc administration team created functional departments for medical intake, animal export, medical care of healthy animals, and hospitalization for critical cases. A team made sure that veterinarian volunteers not with the VMATs were working legally. A logistics team handled donations of supplies, which were lifesaving because of delays in the shipment of VMAT supplies.

Rescued dog
The AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams provided veterinary care for animals at the New Orleans airport, such as this dog, during the evacuation for Hurricane Katrina. (Courtesy of FEMA/Liz Roll)

Most animal intakes were after 5 or 6 p.m. because rescue groups gathered animals in daylight, before curfew. The line of vehicles stretched a mile down the street. Veterinarians would do triage as late as 2 a.m., declaring animals to be green, yellow, red, or black for apparently healthy or minor injury or illness, illness or injury that requires attention but not immediate, life-threatening illness or injury requiring immediate attention, or dead or dying.

“We had our share of yellows and reds and blacks,” Dr. Brennen said. “It depends on the day. We are 10 days in, those animals are probably not in bad shape. When you’re at day 20, now they’re starting to get worse.”

After the operation wound down in October, Drs. Brennen and Goemann traveled home briefly before returning to New Orleans to provide veterinary care for search dogs looking for human remains.

“It gave me perspective. Now I saw where these animals were coming from, where these people were dying, what was going on,” Dr. Brennen said. “It really gave me a lot of closure and allowed me to understand the enormity of the task that we were involved in prior to that.”

Dr. Brennen is now a VMAT commander and national commander of the federal government’s National Veterinary Response Team.

“The principles that were established at Katrina are the principles that are still in use today, so they have stood the test of time,” she said. “We do intake, we do triage, we do export, we do medical care, we have intake protocols. Right now, it’s just been improved, and it’s constantly being revised.”

Dr. Ghere

Dr. Brian Ghere spoke with JAVMA News in September 2005 and again in October 2005 about responding to Hurricane Katrina and beginning to rebuild. He owns Prytania Veterinary Hospital in New Orleans.

A cat being examined
(Courtesy of FEMA/Win Henderson)

After evacuating patients from the clinic, Dr. Ghere evacuated his family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When the levees broke, he contacted the LVMA to offer help with response efforts.

Learning of his offer, a veterinarian asked him to help her evacuate six employees and more than 60 animals from a New Orleans clinic. They drove her rental truck from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, arriving after dark and getting back to Baton Rouge about 4 a.m. New Orleans looked like the aftermath of a bomb explosion.

“Years prior, most of the time it was just an evacuation drill,” Dr. Ghere said. “You would leave because it might get dangerous and you knew you were going to lose power. But a lot of times, people left their cats behind, in particular, because cats could do OK with some food and water for a couple of days.”

Collage of abandoned animals
Dogs, pigs, and rabbits were among the animals left behind during the evacuation for Hurricane Katrina. (Photos courtesy of FEMA/Michael Rieger [top left], FEMA/Liz Roll [bottom left], FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino [right])
Rescued dogs in crates
Dogs at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, Louisiana, which housed thousands of animals rescued after the storm and was one location where the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams provided veterinary care. (Courtesy of FEMA/Liz Roll)

For two months, Dr. Ghere participated in the rescue of animals that people had left behind willingly or unwillingly. He drove his own vehicle and even used his boat, and his wife, Mary, helped after the area became more secure. Rescuers heard about the location of animals through a word-of-mouth network.

Dr. Ghere said the rescue work did a lot of good, but it was hard to put the tragedies out of his mind.

Eventually, he was able to return to his clinic and house. His clinic sustained damage but was one of the first to reopen in the city of New Orleans. His house had flooded with 6 feet of water, and rebuilding took two years.

A dog swimming
(Courtesy of FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino)

Mary was a medical student, and she finished the school year in Houston. His two children from his first marriage stayed in Baton Rouge for the school year.

He and Mary went on to have four children together, and they have moved several times within the area since Katrina. Now she and the children are in Jackson, Mississippi, while she completes a fellowship. So he’s on the road again, temporarily.

Dr. Ghere’s father was an executive who moved the family around. Dr. Ghere attended high school in New Orleans, and that’s when he fell in love with the city. But he is concerned that the proportions of Katrina will be seen as an urban myth by younger residents.

When Dr. Ghere first moved to New Orleans in the 1970s, people were still telling stories about Hurricane Betsy. He said, “A lot of the lessons that the people who had lived through Betsy had learned, this generation forgot for Katrina.”

The lesson from Hurricane Katrina? “If a big storm comes, don’t try to stay, and take everybody with you.”

Related JAVMA content:

The PETS Act: A legal life preserver (Aug. 15, 2015)

AVMA mounts preparedness, response to Katrina (Oct. 1, 2005)

Katrina’s other victims (Oct. 15, 2005)

Veterinary colleges boost relief efforts (Oct. 15, 2005)

Hurricanes double up on Kornegay (Nov. 1, 2005)

Animals, people still recovering from hurricane (Nov. 15, 2005)