Katheryn Krotzer Laborde
note: This piece is in recognition of the two year anniversary of
Hurricane Katrina, and in honor of those who struggled, and continue
to struggle, as a result of the devastation. Never forget.
sky was a calming shade of blue that mid-November morning. In the
fall of 2005, you noticed such things in the days that passed after
the floodwaters drained away from New Orleans. You noticed when
the skies were grey and bloated, you noticed when the heavens were
mockingly clear and, since most of the broken city had no electricity
for traffic lights, street lights, or lights of any kind,
you noticed when the sun was slipping toward a dark horizon.
I was working as an exterior damage assessor. This involved wearing
a hard hat, reflective vest, and steel toe boots as I examined the
damaged neighborhoods of New Orleans, block by block, on foot. Usually
I was paired with Nick, a guy used to wearing a hard hat before
the storm ever hit. In the seven weeks we worked with one another,
putting in six or seven, 10 to 12-hour days a week, dutifully noting
the waterlines and pierced rooftops of house after house after house
in one virtually abandoned neighborhood after the other, we grew
to know many things about each other. One thing Nick came to know
very quickly about me was that I was worthless without my fill of
morning coffee -- not good in a place where open coffee shops were
few and far between.
was a Sunday, and I was sipping medium roast Nick had brought from
home in a thermos as he parked his cherry-colored truck on a street
in Mid-City. Weary from weeks of looking at a broken city, we poured
ourselves out of the cab. He grabbed the map while I snapped up
the pad and pen, double checking to make sure the laptop was hidden
under the seat. After making sure our doors were locked, we reached
into the flatbed for our helmets and jackets. In no hurry, we ambled
toward the peach stucco house on the corner to start another day
of recording water levels and estimating unfathomable loss, moldy
block after block after block.
The neighborhood was pretty, distinctive, and old. The homes there
were 100-year-old structures originally built with the possibility
of flooding in mind. In such homes, the first floor is called the
basement, while the second floor, where the living space was intended,
is considered the first floor. The charming architecture of these
ruined buildings gave Nick and I cause to mourn every now and then
as we recorded the damages.
Nick called out the house number and I walked a few steps behind
him, scribbling. "Two story, one unit, four feet of water.
Give the roof a ten." I instinctively looked up; we rated damage
from zero to one-hundred, and we often argued over these numbers.
Having been at this for a month at this point, I had learned not
to haggle over every little number and wrote down what he said.
Walking still, he got to the other side, saw some additional damage
and called out, "Make that twenty on the roof." I scratched
out the ten with a sloppy X.
was on to the next house. "325. Two stories, two units. Roof
"Still four feet of water?" Some houses were raised and
took on less water. On some blocks the houses were all the same
height off the ground, but the ground itself got lower and lower
as we walked the block, and as a result the water marks reached
higher and higher.
"Yeah, four feet," he said. Next. "327. Two story,
two units." Nick stopped speaking, stopped walking, and I was
still writing when I bumped into him. I looked furtively at the
red X that had been spray painted near the lower door, the one that
announced that, as of September 19, the house had been checked and
there were no bodies found on the premises. Following Nick's glance
to where it then rested at the top of the stairs, I saw large block
letters just under the opaque house light, written with a marker:
Burn in HELL for the Life of this Innocent Dog.
On the other side of the weather worn white door, was an additional
note, scrawled in a script that was possibly the work of another
Note to owner: Next time there is a storm I will make sure to
come by and tie you to the rail with no food no water.
"That would have been a slow death," Nick said, and with
a quick and harsh, "I know," I stopped him from going
on. After weeks spent looking at water-ruined homes, seeing rooftops
marred by escape holes, stepping past the occasional lost photograph
or book or shoe or toy, smelling mildew and rot and, yes, occasionally
the scent of a decaying animal, I felt I had seen it all. But that
morning, seeing the notes scrawled on the wall, I felt something
in me give as we drifted, slowly, to the next house.
a perfect world, we would all pack up our pets before heading off
to hotels or homes of friends and family. But that is not always
possible. Some hotels will not accept animals, and not all homes,
no matter how loving and sympathetic the occupants, are welcoming
to animals. And, to be truthful, the animals themselves do not always
fare well during an evacuation. Cars travel at the speed of snails
as they inch along evacuation routes. Pulling over is difficult.
Being cooped up in a car full of worried humans is stressful. A
colleague of mine lost a dog and a cat during the Hurricane Ivan
evacuation of 2004 -- one animal ran away when the owner opened
the door, and the other one died of a heart attack en route. All
that, and the hurricane hit Florida rather than Louisiana proving
the evacuation to be, in rueful hindsight, unnecessary.
For these reasons and others, many homeowners resign themselves
to leaving their pets behind. They load up food and water bowls
to last for several days, explain the situation to their pets in
a way that probably only serves to assuage their own sense of guilt,
then leave the animals in a house where light is blocked out by
the plywood that covered each window. These animals are given free
reign of the house, or closed off in tiled kitchens, or put in an
Or tied to the railing of a porch.
When flooding forced New Orleanians to stay away for an extended
period, volunteers searched homes for animals to rescue. Some searchers
were prompted by phone calls or emails, while others took it upon
themselves to enter homes and look for starving pets. When pets
were taken, liberators wrote: "ONE DOG TAKEN FROM BEDROOM,"
or some other such note on the wall; at other times, messages such
as "ONE DEAD DOG - SORRY" were left for all to see. Homeowners
who returned to their already X-marked homes often added can't-miss,
spray painted messages of their own announcing that their pets were
being cared for and were not to be taken. Meanwhile, stray dogs,
some with matted hair and haunted eyes, formed packs and roamed
the once-friendly streets in search of food. Still alive, they were
the "lucky" ones. In St. Bernard Parish where the homes
were topped by water, survivors were forced to leave their dogs
behind when they were rescued, only to find out later that the animals
were eventually shot by deputies. In the Ninth Ward, where the homes
were not only topped by water but moved off their foundations as
well, dogs were swaddled in live electric wires and electrocuted.
Other dogs were frightened, starved, dazed, perched atop cars. And
still others were stranded in trees long after the waters had subsided.
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