As the floodwaters began to recede in New Orleans, Angie Smith couldn't stop worrying about all the pets left behind when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in September. How many animals were trapped in houses or roaming the streets in search of food and clean water?
Both Angie - an employee in the Medical Records Department of ETMC Athens - and her husband, Ronny, were itching to help the animals abandoned in New Orleans. So they contacted the Humane Society of the United States, filled out applications to join the Disaster Animal Response Team, and waited.
Angie received the call at work notifying her that she and her husband had been assigned.
"I was shaking," she recalled. "It was like the president was on the line."
On Friday, Oct. 7, the Smiths set out in their pickup for field operation headquarters located 40 miles northwest of the Big Easy: the Lamar Dixon Exposition Center in Gonzales, La. ("It's like our fairgrounds, but much, much bigger.") Among the items they packed were cell phones, a tent, sleeping bags, sheets, towels and plenty of snack food.
When they reached Lake Charles, they encountered The Smell.
"Oh. It's like a Portapotty after two weeks left untended in the sun," said Angie. "It's awful."
Not cleaning cages
Both Angie and Ronny expected to be cleaning cages and caring for and feeding animals at the Expo Center and were perfectly happy to do so. But response team coordinators felt the Smiths' combined experience could be put to better use.
Angie is training to become a veterinary technician and puts in regular time at an emergency vet clinic in Tyler. In addition, she and Ronny are members of the Texas Ferret Rescue program, which means they take in aggressive ferrets and attempt to ready them for placement.
So when the couple reported for Saturday's early morning meeting at the Expo Center, they were shocked and pleased to learn they had been assigned to a search and rescue team.
"They supplied us with a crowbar and hammer, and off we went," said Angie with a chuckle.
All search and rescue team members were also supplied with identification papers from the Office of Homeland Security. Much of New Orleans remained off-limits to the general public and was patrolled by National Guard members.
"The visions of the city were so unreal," Angie recalled. "Everything has at least an 8-foot watermark on it. It's empty. Houses washed away.
"It's like you're in a Third World country. We were passing National Guardsmen with M16s. If we'd been there a week earlier, we would have had to write our Social Security numbers on our arms in case we were shot. …
"Tops were off of some crypts. It looked like something out of a horror movie. And the mold on walls inside the houses was half-an-inch thick and fuzzy."
The Smiths' team was assigned to a zone in the city and given a list of several owners who had called and asked that someone check for pets at their homes. Because so many homes in New Orleans have bars over the doors and windows, crowbars and hammers are often required to gain entrance. Their assigned zone that day took them right along the 17th Street Canal, which was breached the day the hurricane hit.
"People's backyard fences were built right against the levy," said Angie. While searching for a house on their list, the Smiths witnessed a heartbreaking homecoming. A Bentley pulled up to a house right on the canal and out stepped a well-dressed woman who looked to be in her early 60s. "She got out in front of her house, which was still standing. She looked toward her neighbors' houses. They were gone. She looked across the street to where other houses had washed away. Then she just hit her knees," said Angie, shaking her head. "I felt bad to be watching."
The Smiths spent all day checking houses on their list, finding the animals dead or the homes empty. Then, that evening, they received a call from dispatch. Someone reported leaving behind a Pit Bull Mastiff at a home on Saint Anthony Street.
"I'll never forget that address," said Angie, "because it took us two hours to find it and we were within 6 miles of it when we got the call." Following directions accurately is nearly impossible in parts of New Orleans. There are very few street signs remaining and few working traffic lights. "Everyone just has to make do. We're going the wrong way on a one-way, and they'll just wave you on. It's crazy, but you make do," said Angie.
Using the spotlight they happened to have in the truck ("Yeah, we're East Texans."), the Smiths finally located the target house around 8:30.
"We started up to the door, and Ronny started working on the bars with a crowbar. That's when we heard the barking," recalled Angie, who even now has to fight the tears when she recalls the emotional experience. "In between her barking, she was whining. That just made my husband work that much harder."
A Pit Bull Mastiff named Princess
Once Ronny gained entrance to the house, they discovered a very submissive, emaciated Pit Bull Mastiff. She had been trapped inside the kitchen for 38 days. The room was roughly 15-feet-by-20-feet. "The water was there in the kitchen six-feet deep for at least two-and-a-half weeks," said Angie in amazement. "She could only have survived by floating on the kitchen table or getting on the airtight refrigerator."
The Smiths found an empty bag of dog food in the room. "We don't know if, when the hurricane hit, it had been mostly full or practically empty," said Angie. "That bag was licked absolutely clean." Mastiffs normally weigh between 100 and 120 pounds. This one - whom the Smiths called Princess - weighed a pathetic 62 pounds. R
onny leashed Princess. And once the dog realized access to the outside world was possible, "she pulled him like a rhinoceros onto that back porch. She just stood there looking around." From her spot in the kitchen, a single window had given Princess a view of the sidewalk outside.
Angie said as she drove through the ruined neighborhoods of New Orleans, she often looked up into second-floor and attic windows "wondering if there was a fuzzy, hungry, thirsty face looking out at the scant traffic and wondering if anyone would come help."
The opportunity to help Princess, said Angie, was "awesome." "We would have given anything to have brought her home with us," she said. After offering the dog a small amount of food and water, they set out for the vet's station.
They didn't even consider putting Princess in the cage in the back of the pickup. She rode in the back seat. The vets instantly started her on fluids, and Princess was doing well the last time the Smiths saw her.
Angie is hoping to contact the owners to arrange a reunion with the dog.
"We thought we'd be washing dog bowls and mucking stables," she said. "Instead this happened. We felt like the A-Team." The experience was both fulfilling and exhausting for Angie. To give herself an emotional break, she spent the next day working triage at an abandoned Exxon Station, while her husband returned to the search and rescue team.
Saving more animals
Then, on Monday, Angie went out again with her husband. Their team recovered five additional animals - all from the streets - and put out over 100 food and water stations. Along the way, Angie had blood drawn, and not with a needle.
"Never underestimate a Hurricane Katrina cat," she said, eyes wide. "This cat had a collar and tags. I spent 15 minutes petting her trying to gain her trust. When I went to scruff her (by the back of the neck), she gained about 10 more legs.
"It scared me." Cat bites are particularly infectious, so Angie immediately started a round of antibiotics. The wounds on her left hand and wrist are healing, and she's suffered no other ill effects.
The Smiths, who together own Athens Alternator & Battery, returned on a Tuesday morning, four days after arriving at the operations center outside New Orleans.
"When we got home and were pulling into the driveway, Ronny looked at me and said, 'If they call for us, tell them to give us nine hours and we'll be there.'"
Dedicated to Princess
Angie's co-workers at ETMC Athens, where she has worked the past 14 years, weren't surprised a bit by her adventures in New Orleans. "That's her passion in life: animals," said coworker Donna Fambrough. "She talks about animals like they're her kids." "Yeah, my 13-year-old son pointed out that I made arrangements for the pets before I did for him," laughed Angie.
In addition to six children, the Smiths have five dogs, five ferrets, two donkeys and one "spoiled house rabbit." "I don't think my adrenaline has stopped flowing," said Angie as she sat in the dictation room of the Medical Records Department.
"We didn't want to come home. … You're just so joyful about what you've done." She's already made progress on a scrapbook detailing the experience. There's a whole section dedicated to Princess, of course. "It was the most incredible thing we've ever done," said Angie. "It's something only a few people ever get to do."