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By Katheryn Krotzer Laborde

Editor's 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.

The 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.

It 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.

"323." 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.

He was on to the next house. "325. Two stories, two units. Roof looks good."

"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 hand.

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.


In 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 upstairs bedroom.

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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