Volunteers rescue, treat animals in Baton Rouge

August flooding displaces people and animals
Published on September 28, 2016
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Flooding in and near Baton Rouge displaced thousands of animals and destroyed veterinary clinics.

About 80 dogs, cats, horses, cattle, goats, pigs, chickens, and exotic animals were treated for flood related injuries by late August at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine’s teaching hospital.

A slow-moving storm that hit southern Louisiana and the resulting flooding killed at least 13 people and paralyzed the region, according to information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scattered storms Aug. 9 were followed by heavy rain by Aug. 11, nonstop thunderstorms Aug. 12, and ongoing heavy rain Aug. 13. 

Louisiana State University veterinary students feed puppies at a temporary animal shelter. (Photos courtesy of LSU)

Baton Rouge received 19 inches of rain. The highest recorded amount, 31 inches, fell in Watson, 20 miles to the northeast.

“Rains of this magnitude falling in this short amount of time are exceedingly rare,” according to NOAA. “From August 12-13, the two-day rainfall amounts in the hardest hit areas have only around a 0.2% chance of occurring in any given year: a 1 in 500 year event.”

Dr. Cherie Pucheu-Haston, an associate professor of veterinary clinical sciences at LSU, said the veterinary school had seen injuries related to immersion in water and escape efforts. Horses that were abandoned or stranded in water—sometimes above chest high—for multiple days had overhydrated skin that peeled, often taking hair with it and giving the appearance of a bad sunburn, she said. Some dogs have had similar, but usually less severe, immersion-related injuries.

And dogs and cats had ligamentous injuries from working to free themselves from areas where they were caught or trapped.

“It’s still August, so a lot of dogs and cats are having issues with the heat,” she said. “Many of these animals are typical indoor animals.”

The flooding also drowned pets and horses unable to escape high water, Dr. Pucheu-Haston said.

Animals belonging to displaced families are in large shelters, where workers are trying to cool them, she said.

Volunteers with the LSU veterinary school and the Louisiana State Animal Response Team established two animal shelters in Baton Rouge and one in nearby Gonzales to the southeast, according to information from the university. By Aug. 19, those shelters had housed about 1,600 animals, including about 500 dogs, 370 horses, 175 cats, 150 goats, 140 cattle, and a mix of other pets and livestock.

“Countless volunteers composed of LSU SVM faculty, staff, and students, as well as members of the public, have stepped up to rescue and care for these animals,” an LSU announcement states. “The LSU SVM/LSART teams have rescued horses, dogs, cats, pigs, cattle, rabbits and chickens from flooded areas in Livingston and East Baton Rouge Parishes.”

Some of those faculty, staff, and student volunteers lost their homes or have family who did, according to LSU.

Dr. Renée Poirrier, director of LSART and owner of a practice in Lafayette, said the team’s volunteers rescued about 15 horses, conducted search-and-rescue for small animals, advised public health officials on zoonotic disease risks and countermeasures in a shelter containing people and animals, and provided oversight, overhead management, veterinary medical care, and other care at animal shelters. Its volunteers also collected donated pens and kennels that would help the dogs’ owners take their pets with them to temporary homes.

Dr. Laura Riggs, an associate professor of equine surgery, and William Ryan, a veterinary student, rescue a horse in Livingston Parish.

LSART is composed of volunteers, many of them veterinarians, veterinary technicians, or animal control officers. Before the rain, the LSART had helped train responders in local communities, some of which were able to handle much of the disaster on their own.

Dr. Poirrier said the shelter cohabitated by people and pets worked well, with people and animals remaining calmer than at other shelters.

Christel C. Slaughter, PhD, chair of the board of directors for the Companion Animal Alliance of Baton Rouge animal shelter, said Aug. 16 that rain was still pouring. Waters had risen in places where she had never seen flooding, and people lacked flood insurance.

“There are areas where the water is over at least part of the roof,” she said.

She and others at the shelter had not heard from all employees, which she said had been typical within Baton Rouge. The shelter itself remained unharmed.

Those who were available cared for about 250 additional animals, mostly dogs, by Aug. 17. One who had a boat helped people off roofs and encountered a woman who declined to leave her flooded home because she wanted to stay with her five cats.

The alliance’s shelter was “full to the gills,” Dr. Slaughter said. The shelter planned to send animals from its adoptable population to other cities in hopes of making more room for those displaced by the storm.

Some people donated money, others pet food or leashes, whereas some offered foster care for the animals that had inhabited the shelter before the rain fell. The shelter lacked air conditioning, and the weather remained muggy. Dr. Slaughter likened one donation of brownies and cold water to “an oasis in the desert.”

The shelter had about 50 volunteers daily, in addition to staff members, she said. And she estimated the shelter already had received more than $5,000 in donations.

Less than two weeks after the flooding began, FEMA had pledged or delivered $127 million in financial assistance, most of that in grants to help people find temporary homes or fix existing ones, according to FEMA information. About $20 million was issued in advance payments to National Flood Insurance Program policyholders.

FEMA and other federal entities committed money and employees to rescuing people, protecting them and their property, repairing roads and bridges, removing debris, cleaning and gutting homes, loaning money, and helping people apply for aid and find short-term housing, according to FEMA. By Aug. 23, the American Red Cross was operating 18 shelters for more than 2,400 people, and the organization had provided 45,000 overnight stays and 300,000 meals and snacks.

The Louisiana Farm Bureau Hay Clearinghouse was coordinating donations of hay with the intent of matching those who have hay with those who need hay and, through volunteers, delivering the hay to those in need.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, in an Aug. 15 letter to fellow Louisianans, wrote that the historic flooding was “breaking every record,” and water was still rising in some areas. He urged that people use caution, described available resources, and offered assurance the state government was doing all possible for its citizens.

Dr. Pucheu-Haston said veterinary students were spending hours at shelters after lectures, and those in clinical rotations were volunteering after wrapping up daily clinical duties. Faculty were spending extra hours seeing additional patients.

Veterinary students’ classes began Aug. 17.

Companies donated medications, antiseptic solutions, and animal foods, she said.

Thousands of animals have been displaced, and most that needed medical treatment received it at shelters, she said. Others with more complicated or life-threatening problems were treated at LSU.

Some veterinarians’ clinics also have been destroyed, including one clinic of 40 years, she said. Dr. Pucheau-Haston also was among LSU faculty members with flooded homes. She knew one faculty member who lost animals during a flash flood, and students and staff had varying amounts of harm from floodwater.

Part of her house was uninhabitable, and her mother, husband, and pets were staying in the safe area while she stayed with a colleague. By Aug. 26, she still had to walk through water to return home.

Dr. Pucheu-Haston advises that all veterinarians have backup plans, including evacuation plans for themselves and patients. Be ready for an influx of lost or homeless animals, she said, and heed warnings about pending disasters.