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Story of our trip to Pearlington, MS 9-11-05

 Katrina Pictures

8-29-05

Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm, going just east of New Orleans and directly over the small coastal towns of Pearlington, MS, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Pass Christian. These small towns were literally wiped out by a 30-foot wave called a tidal surge.

During the news of New Orleans flooding and the people of the Astrodome being trapped not much was mentioned about these small towns on the news. I watched in horror as they showed people and animals struggling to stay alive as the water rose.

9-10-05

After watching the news all week of the Hurricane that hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and seeing humans and the animals stranded on rooftops or in stables that were under water I could no longer watch it. I kept reading email messages that animals and people down there needed help and I knew there was no way I could get into New Orleans so when an email came asking for help in the little coastal town of Pearlington, Mississippi I knew I had to at least try to do something. I sent out emails to friends and made some phone calls to people that I knew were interested in helping, and within 24 hours I had donations and commitments for making the trip to take supplies to them. They desperately needed hay and feed and veterinary supplies and they were such a small community that they weren’t yet getting help from the outside world. Elsie Roth, who is very well known in the community, introduced me to Nora Schild, who agreed to go with me. Veterinarians and other horse friends came by with supplies and feed. We already had 100 bales of hay in the trailer that we had just purchased. I knew that we needed a sign for the truck stating that we were doing Animal Rescue so Ben Ziglin of Ziglin signs in Washington, MO was nice enough to donate two large magnetic signs for the truck and trailer. He had them made and ready within an hour. People came by with food, cash donations and supplies so within a few hours we were loaded and ready to go. 

  9-11-05

I left New Haven at 1 AM and stopped in Washington, MO to pick up Nora Schild who was going with me to help find and rescue the animal victims of Hurricane Katrina in Pearlington, MS. Pearlington is a small town about 30 miles east of New Orleans right on the Gulf and the center of where the ‘eye’ of Katrina came through. We drove all night and all day the next day before getting into northern Mississippi where the mood and landscape started to change. We met many nice people along the way. As we stopped at a traffic light in northern Mississippi a man in a pick up truck next to us rolled his window down and asked if we were going down south? When I replied ‘yes’ he handed a folded bill out the window of his truck. As I unfolded it and realized that it was a $100 bill the light changed and he waved and said ‘have a good day’ and drove on. We were so taken by the generosity of a total stranger. As we drove through northern Mississippi people were happy and busy as normal but as we moved further south we could start seeing damaged truck stops, rest areas, highway signs etc. As we got further down toward the Gulf we had no road signs, no exit signs, very few fuel stations open, no rest areas, and debris was scattered everywhere. We carried extra cans of fuel with us as we had been warned that fuel was hard to get down there. There weren’t many people on the roads and our contacts were waiting for us up near the Interstate to show us the way in to the devastated little town of Pearlington. Two other young women from Florida with a horse trailer were parked up near the road to show us the way.

As we got out to introduce ourselves to the other volunteers ‘clouds’ of mosquitoes swarmed around us to the point of getting into our ears and mouths as we tried to speak. We soaked ourselves with insect repellent and as it was just getting dark we hurried on to get into town before the 8 o’clock curfew. We were told not to be out of the National Guard compound after curfew or we would be in trouble.

As we drove the winding road down into Pearlington we were not aware that there was a town. There were fallen trees everywhere that had been sawed enough for a car to pass through but we really couldn’t tell we were on a road. The trees covered the road everywhere and the pavement was covered with dried mud so we really didn’t realize that it was paved. We carefully navigated our way to the Firehouse where we were told to come. The Firehouse was one of only three structures visible in the rubble and it was heavily damaged.  It was total devastation and very eerie to see. We talked with our contact, Sam Bailey, who told us to go ahead and get to the compound for the night and we would start our work at daybreak. 

We pulled the truck into the area that had been cleared by the National Guard and opened our cooler for a snack and a drink and soon tipped the seats back for some much needed sleep. It was too hot to sleep outside and the mosquitoes were too bad so we slept in the front seat of the truck and started the engine periodically to run the air conditioner. The silence was surreal. There wasn’t a sound of anything except an occasional sound of dogs yipping or a cat howling, none of the regular nighttime sounds of crickets or frogs chirping.

  9-12-05

At daybreak we awoke to a grey overcast morning light that showed more than we could possibly imagine. The trees were down everywhere. What was a house at one time could not be recognized as a house. Some were leveled into a pile of rubble. Others were thrown upside down. Others had boats in trees in what used to be their yard. We walked over to the schoolhouse where the National Guard was setting up and one of the soldiers offered us a left over cup of coffee. They were still setting up there and cleaning up rubble around the school, which was still standing but the windows were broken out. We left the compound and drove back into town where we were based to start our search and rescue of animals.

Several other groups were getting ready to go out looking and we dropped off our supplies in a yard where the house had been destroyed but they were setting up a shelter for the animal crates and portable kennels. We helped the vet administer meds to dogs and a couple brought in a dog with a broken hind leg. The husband was driving the pickup and the wife was sitting in the back with the dogs head in her lap. She was crying as she told the story of how he had been lost during the flood when the water came up into the house and they got into a boat. Their other little dog jumped out of the boat and drowned and this chocolate Lab had jumped out of the boat and swam away. They had been searching for him for over a week and had just found him when a car hit him. The vet, Anne, had volunteered her time and her vet tech to come down and help in this small community. She worked on the dog in the back of the pickup truck to set the leg and get him stabilized.

While she worked on him another dog I was near had a seizure and was taken out of the crate to see how he was. After he was stabilized we were told to move him to quarantine for fear of rabies. (His owners later picked him up and said he was old and had epilepsy and had seizures often).

We disconnected the trailer loaded with hay and feed on the slab of concrete that used to be the Post Office. All that was left of it was the slab and the flagpole with a tattered flag flying.  We set off to look for animals. We were sent down back roads out into the forest and swampland. We navigated our way through small roads that had trees and debris scattered across them. The huge pines were snapped off about twenty feet up and looked like broken toothpicks on both sides of the road. We stopped at properties along the way checking to see if people needed anything for their animals. As we introduced ourselves we found most people sitting on their property in tents with nothing but what they had when the water came.

They told about the water coming up so fast and not being able to get away from it before it took everything. According to what we heard, a thirty-foot wall of water hit the whole area after the eye of the hurricane passed. Many thought the storm was over when they went outside and realized that they were actually in the eye of the storm.

  Sam Bailey and his wife had a two-story house in Pearlington and had to climb to the attic to escape the water. The house and all of their beautiful antiques were demolished but they survived. Sam was tirelessly working at the animal shelter organizing the relief groups and seeing that the animals were being looked after.

On the day that we arrived not many of the hurricane relief groups had gotten to this small town yet. Many of the people that had ridden out the hurricane in their attics or in small boats were still trying to dig out from under the debris. We found that the people needed help as well as the animals and we carried cases of water and some food to hand out as we searched for animals. We went down small roads that were basically dirt tire tracks at this point.  We had to navigate under power poles that were leaning over with wires dangling and through tree branches and sometimes had to stop and crawl between fallen pines to get to a dwelling.

We met a man and his wife named Catherine, who had pancreatic cancer and they sat in front of the remains of their home with a pup tent and were so appreciative of a little food for the remaining two goats they had and some food for their cats.  We asked Catherine what she needed for herself and the only thing that she really wanted was a flashlight because it was so very dark out there at night. When we went back to the base with our rescued dogs we made another loop down that road and took Catherine a flashlight. She was so appreciative of something so trivial.

As we drove from farm to farm and house to house the terrible stench of death was always there. Sometimes it was stronger than other times but it was always there. One young man rode out the storm in his little house in the forest but most of his animals died. He said the sound of the animals dying was a haunting sound. He had burned them when the water receded and was apologetic for having to burn them but didn’t know what else to do.

We stopped and picked up dogs that had been left behind by their owners and those that we couldn’t catch we put out food and water for. As we filled our crates with dogs we would take them back to the shelter, which was quickly filling up with animals.

We heard of some cattle that were on the roads at night and some pigs that were rooting through the rubble for what they could find. We didn’t see them during the daylight when we were allowed to be out but in the evening one of the other rescue groups told us that the cattle were down on the highway again so we went to look for them. They were out in an open area near the highway and the police were up on the road with their flashing lights on. It was a longhorn cow and two good-sized calves. I knew that they must be hungry and thirsty so I carried some hay and a bucket of water out to where they were. The cow immediately slurped down the bucket of water so I got another off my truck for the calves. They started eating the hay and I thought that I could get them to follow me to my stock trailer with some feed and perhaps pen them up for the night. They all followed me to the trailer but were very frightened and skittish after their experiences of the week.  After much coaxing and baiting with feed I was able to get the cow onto the trailer. Later some men came and set up portable corral panels and loaded the calves. We trailered them to a quarantine facility in the northern part of the county where they would stay until possibly being claimed by their owner.

While we were down on the highway trying to catch the Longhorns we met a young man named Robert, who asked if we had seen a little Paint horse in our searches. We told him that we hadn't seen any horses yet but that we would certainly watch for him. He said, "That little horse saved my life". We asked how he did that and he told the story of how he sat out the storm for over six hours and when it let up he thought it was over. He went outside to check on his animals and they were all doing fine. He didn’t know that he was actually in the ‘eye’ of the hurricane. All at once the water came so fast that he tried to run back to the house and before he could get there it was chest deep. He grabbed onto the mane of his little boy's Paint horse and they both started swimming. As the water got deeper and was over their heads they swam and swam the horse pulling him along as he held onto the mane. A boat came within reach so he reached out with his left hand and grabbed onto the boat. He turned loose of the mane with his right hand and watched as the water carried the little Paint horse towards the trees and he couldn't see him anymore. He had been searching for him since then and it was day 12 after the storm. Two days later he told us that they had found his horse. He was dead and hanging in the alligator sign down the road. (I found a picture of the Alligator sign before the storm and will post it here).

Another person told about his niece and her family who lived in a big two-story house near Waveland. The water came up fast and they were trying to get the family to the second floor as the water was coming up. They wrapped an extension cord around the neck of the little girl's pony and held onto it while the pony swam till it could get to the second floor of the house. The pony was saved by holding onto it with an extension cord.

We were also told about a family that was found dead with the father's arms around his wife and children when they found them. They were trapped when the water came.

We saw three beautiful Charolais cows and a huge bull that had been picked up. They were the only ones that survived out of their herd of 14 when the water came. All were beautiful registered breeding stock. They were recovering at the quarantine station that we took the Longhorns to.

Another lady we met had a two-story house and had tried to evacuate when the hurricane was coming. She had driven six hours north to go to her sister’s house. When she couldn’t find her sister’s house and couldn’t find a place to stay anywhere she and her three dogs went back to her home and sat out the storm. When the storm stopped blowing she went outside to check for damage and all at once the water came. She had a boat on a trailer float by as she was trying to get into her house and she climbed into the boat, grabbed her three little dogs into the boat and sat in the boat for two days until the water receded. Her house was still standing and one of the few dwellings in Pearlington that was. For the next several days she walked around the town putting out feed and water for the animals that were left there. The pigs found her yard and when we were called there she had fed them some dog food and got them partially secured in a little dog pen in her yard. There were two sows with about six babies and some older babies with her, about twelve in all. They were pretty traumatized by their experience but seemed to be doing alright in the dog pen so we left them there to be taken to the quarantine station.

As we went back to the shelter for the night the dog pens were filling up with dogs and volunteers were caring for them along with Dr Anne who was treating their injuries and vaccinating and tagging them. Each dog was vaccinated for rabies, tagged, treated for fleas and photographed for identification.  The ones that were stabilized were being moved to Kendra Williams kennels in Mandeville to make room for the ones that were still coming in. We saw that the animals all had feed and water for the night and went back to the National Guard compound to settle in for another night’s rest in the truck.

9-13-05

All of the people we met had a survival story to tell and most wanted to tell it. They were such appreciative and strong people that as we prepared to leave the devastated area we were forever changed. We hooked up to our trailer and had the Longhorns loaded for their trip up to the northern part of the county for holding until their owner could claim them. We bid our good byes to Sam and Kendra and started heading out of the little demolished town. As we were winding our way out we saw much progress already of people cleaning up the debris, and backhoes, and bulldozers pushing things off the road. The road was now a two-lane road and the debris was pushed to the side. Power company crews were working everywhere and as we turned onto the main highway we got in to a huge convoy of military vehicles that was moving eastward. We flowed in line with them until we made our turnoff at Waveland and went north to the farm that the cattle were being taken to. As we went through the town of Waveland we saw slabs where houses were and pillars that were the only things left of houses. It was another town of total devastation that the news media had not shown us. Such a vast area was totally devastated. So hard to visualize. People still dazed and in shock at the horrendous losses. We dropped the cattle off and headed north to return to our homes and own animals. As we left we felt so much sadness for what we had witnessed. It was a long sad drive home. We were so impressed with the fact that these people are such a strong people and are out their helping each other and helping their neighbors. Unlike what we had seen on the news of racial problems in New Orleans, we saw people in these small communities working side by side to help each other.

I felt as if we had only done a microscopic amount of helping in this vast area of devastation. I think that anyone that hasn’t seen the amount of damage done cannot possibly imagine the enormity of it. 

I have been home a couple of weeks now as I write this last bit of my experience in Pearlington and Waveland MS I know that witnessing it will forever change me. The people of southern Mississippi are continually on my mind and I feel that I will be making another trip down there in the future. They are strong people in very closely knit communities that will rebuild their lives and their futures. I only wish that I could do more to help them. 

If you would like to help the animals that are still in need please contact any of these rescue groups at this link: 

Rescue Groups

"As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should
share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not
to have lived." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

11/28/2006

hurricane, rescue, relief, Rita, Katrina, animal rescue

© Lois Aichholz

 

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