Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty.

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

- Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
  Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Going to the dogs after Katrina

I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it. - Abraham Lincoln

Like many countless other Americans from all over the country, I somehow found a way down to Louisiana after Katrina. I wasn't trained as a medic or in rescue, I wasn't a 'trained Red Cross volunteer,' and so they wouldn't take me. My car barely ran and I had no money. I have a chronic health problem (but I had been doing a lot of walking, so I hoped...)

Honestly; it hurt too much to watch. Watching the slow drowning death of New Orleans broke my heart more badly than anything I have ever witnessed before, in my entire life. In fact, my heart is still broken. I can tell; right now, as I am sitting here writing this. The feelings are just as raw as they were two years ago. It has forever changed me, remade me, and I will never be the same person I was before the storm blew ashore two years ago today.

Sometime shortly before Rita made landfall, I was in my car and on my way to Louisiana to volunteer in an animal rescue shelter.

"Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
God's gonna trouble the water"

New Orleans is my favorite American city for a million little reasons; the joie de vivre, the jazz, the food, the hanging moss, the cemeteries - even the funerals. A cultural gumbo totally unique to America, and yet uniquely American.

I stayed up all night when Katrina made landfall, because I knew NOLA was a bowl and was terrified that the storm would wipe it out. The following morning, before my husband left for work, we celebrated the 'miracle;' the fact that NOLA had miraculously avoided a direct hit (and the catastrophic flooding that would have followed.) I am not ashamed to admit that I had been - literally - on my knees praying for New Orleans most of the night.

He left for work, and within an hour I heard that the levees had broken. The storm spared the city... but it was drowned by neglect.

Watching the aftermath on CNN, I connected with mainstream media for the first time in months; with the reporters mainly, because they were reacting much as I was. Their humanity was showing. They were obviously shaken, grieving and outraged.

It still seems as though it only happened yesterday. I recall watching CNN's Jeanne Meserve crying as she described the experiences of Mark Biello, a CNN cameraman who went out on a boat and came back with horrific stories and footage. Dogs in trees - dogs wrapped in electrical lines. Voices crying for help in the darkness; calling out from within their attics.

And that was just the first night.

Anderson Cooper especially won my respect with his ongoing coverage. With all of the war trauma and bloodshed he has witnessed in his career, he obviously never expected to see such horror in the good ol USA. I especially remember his famous take-down of Senator Mary Landrieu:

Excuse me, senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. For the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians slap—you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?

And of course, Bush... still on vacation, then finally emerging -- not headed for the Coast but to the White House, with perfectly clipped Barney tucked under his arm; a cruel insult to all of the people who had been forced to abandon their pets to almost certain death in the water.

Every day, more of the same. And still, the government was absent. I wished I had a boat. I wished I could rent a boat. I wished I had money, that I knew what to do, that I was healthier, that another country would ride in and save New Orleans and the rest of the coast -- because obviously our president and our Federal government were doing NOTHING.

And that was unfathomable.

And the animals...

Oh my God, they were everywhere; on roofs, in trees, swimming, hiding, starving - hundreds of thousands of them. We have four pets of our own and no kids, and I have been unofficially rescuing critters all of my life (its what we do, in my family.) I kept imagining myself on a roof with our pets... and I knew I could never have left them behind. They depend on me. To see others having to make such horrible choices tore me apart.

Snowball; pried out of the arms of a weeping child and left behind.

"Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice

Bless the beasts and the children
For the world will never be
The world they see

Light their way
When the darkness surrounds them
Give them love
Let it shine all around them

Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storm
Keep them safe, keep them warm"

Carpenters (Theme from "Bless the Beasts & Children," Columbia 1971)

I finally knew I had to go down there, or I'd never be able to live with myself for not 'showing up.'

I drove out of town for training, and then signed up as a volunteer with several animal rescue organizations. My backup plan was to drive down to Camp Casey and volunteer there if no one called from the animal rescue groups. But after another week of waiting, I was sent to a temporary, emergency shelter in Louisiana.

I pulled in late at night after driving straight through from Indiana, moments ahead of the trucks carrying dogs that had been shipped out of New Orleans. I didn't have time to meet anyone, learn my way around; everyone was insanely busy, so I just jumped in and started escorting dogs into the building and getting them settled in their new temporary enclosures. We tried to make them as comfortable as possible, with blankets and toys, water and food. Many were shaking, and they smelled... terrible. I still had that smell on me the following day; I couldn't get it off. It was the smell of the water in New Orleans.

Some dogs had burns - horrible chemical sores on their feet. Many were terribly malnourished, dehydrated and most had heartworm disease. A few were so depressed that it was all we could do - as the hot, humid days dragged by - to keep them busy, cuddled and hugged so that they wouldn't give up hope and die.

Our dog sleeps like this too. It was easy to imagine my own despair if she has been lost after the storm, and we were unable to find her.

"The river rose all day, the river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away alright
The river had busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin to wash us away, they're tryin to wash us away
Oh Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin to wash us away, they're tryin to wash us away"

Randy Newman (Louisiana 1927)

The heat was unreal. There wasn't enough liquid in the world to keep us hydrated as we worked, and so much work to do that we struggled to find time to stop and drink. The first two days I suffered from heat exhaustion, but there was really nothing to do about it but try to drink and keep scrubbing the diarrhea off the floors -- sick and stressed dogs make a very big mess, and when you add in 110 degree heat and 90% humidity even with the fans; we were a miserable bunch. All I really wanted to do was sit down and comfort the puppies. They were starved for love, sometimes more than for food and water.

We all rode out Rita together in the shelter. The storm came right over us. We had stacked sandbags all around the entrances, but I will never forget the endless shrieking of the wind through the metal walls of the old (was it a barn?) we had converted and stuffed with cages and fans. One line of volunteers spent the entire storm holding a tarp in place that was blocking the rain from one entrance, battling the wind for hours. They literally fought the storm and won; all to keep the water out, and the dogs dry.

Tornadoes were touching down all around us as the eye broke up overhead, and there was... nowhere we could have gone, any of us. We'd have been toast if a tornado had hit. Fortunately the closest one came within about a mile I think, somewhere behind us.

Meanwhile, the dogs were terrified. First one hurricane, now another... it was so unfair. It was obvious that they knew exactly what was going on.

One little puppy friend died of heartworm disease; he was just too far along with the illness when he arrived. He was there with another little Shepherd - the two appearing to be litter mates. The sick one was very affectionate, and I tried to spend a little free time with him, just sitting.

When he was gone, the other one was... even more lost and confused than before. Honestly; I have no words for the confusion and sadness I saw all around me.

I only saw two reunions the entire time I was there. People walked through from time to time, looking for beloved pets, and of course - the pets were just there waiting endlessly, in the heat, hoping...

I actually saw a dog in the shelter that I recognized from the post-flood television coverage. Meeting the dog in person was comforting - being able to hug him, pet him and see tangible proof that he had survived. It put to rest (for me anyway) at least one searing image that would have remained to haunt me through the years.

They couldn't tell their stories, or express their grief except through their eyes. Disaster. Loss of everything familiar, of loved ones and happy routines... some of them still perfectly clipped, with beautiful collars and shiny tags with addresses of houses that were probably under water. Tags for veterinarian clinics that would have held records about their owners... but were closed and also undoubtedly under water. Their neighborhoods were devastated, their families spread across the country. There was no way to find their people. But it was obvious that so very many of them had been loved and cherished.

"Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand

I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long"

Jackson Browne (Doctor My Eyes)

While I was actively working, I was too tired to think; my heart was eased by the activity and the feeling that at least I was doing something. When it was time to go home, I once again felt helpless. No amount of physical pain could come close to the emotional torture of inactivity in the face of such suffering.

As I was driving home, I didn't feel any better... if possible, I felt worse. I knew that I hadn't even made a dent. And it wasn't the storm that had broken my heart - probably all of our hearts in September, 2005. It was the way the Gulf Coast and my beloved New Orleans - the people and their dependent pets - were completely abandoned by our government. Cuba and China rescue and protect their citizens in the face of catastrophic storms; Cuba didn't lose one life when Cat 5 Ivan smashed ashore. The difference between Cuba and neocon USA? Cuban government officials care about the people - they were even evacuated with their animals.

"A little piece of you
A little piece in me... will die
(For this is not the miracle)
For this is not America"

David Bowie (This is Not America)

At times of great national emergency, we depend on the organized assistance of our government; to whom we have dutifully paid our taxes in the belief that the government will be there in our hour of need. We expect, and rightfully so, that our government will use this money for the common good: to help pull the country back together again, and rebuild. We believe that our government believes in us; that we're all 'Americans' together. We actually believe this.

Or at least we used to.

Unfortunately, our government was - and still is - completely AWOL.

Funny, because we still do our duty as American citizens. We still pay taxes. For what, exactly? Since Katrina, I haven't been able to figure that one out. Are we only needed now for buying bombs? Or paying the bloated salaries of Halliburton bosses?

It is obvious that none of our money is going to the Gulf Coast. When I hear about the contractor waste and over-billing in Iraq and I think about New Orleans, still languishing without assistance from our own government... I realize I now have a new definition of 'evil.'

"I believe in the gods of America
I believe in the land of the free
But no one told me
That the gods believe in nothing
So with empty hands I pray
And from day to hopeless day
They still don't see me"

George Michael (Hand to Mouth)

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