How this pet rescuer stayed strong through Katrina—and cancer
Posted in , Feb 1, 2006
I didn't leave my home in Mandeville, Louisiana, when Hurricane Katrina struck.
I undergo chemotherapy each week for a highly aggressive form of breast cancer, so medically my options were somewhat limited. But that's not the reason I stayed.
I own Lansa's Boarding Kennels, a hotel for pets. Business was booming—I was almost too busy to count my blessings. We have 60 runs, and I had plans to expand to 100 with an additional nonprofit adoption facility.
Then I found the lump. The results of the biopsy were what my family and I feared the most: cancer. I had four masses in my right breast, with all of the surrounding tissue involved.
My oncologist said he'd never seen a case like mine, so young with such an aggressive cancer. Chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and a hysterectomy would be my only shot at survival.
My plans to expand the kennel went on hold. But I couldn't quit working. I loved caring for the animals and I needed to stay busy, especially now that life seemed so precious.
As Katrina bore down I was torn, though. Should I have taken the animals and fled to safer ground? Lansa's is the designated evacuation site for three animal shelters in St. Tammany Parish. The kennel was overrun with 163 evacuated dogs and cats.
My mom called the Saturday before Katrina was expected to hit. "We're evacuating," she told me. "I wish you would come with us, but I know you're going to stay there. If things get too bad, leave the kennel, leave the animals. You can't help them if you get hurt."
I had been so busy preparing for the hurricane that I hadn't seen the images of Katrina growing to a Category 5. I didn't realize what my mom knew already—this hurricane was a killer.
Still, I was confident in my kennel's structure and confident in my faith. I prayed, Lord, these animals need me. I know I've leaned on you a lot lately, but I need your strength more than ever.
"Mom," I said, "I have to stay. I'll be all right. I love you. Don't worry."
"I wish you'd change your mind."
"Mom, I'm scared, but the animals really need me."
I didn't know where my family was going, but I knew they would be safely out of the hurricane's way. Altogether there were nine of us hunkered down at the kennel.
As the storm winds got stronger, we huddled in a hallway, praying the cinderblock walls of the kennel would protect us. We could hear the trees cracking and breaking all around us.
The sound of the wind was like a locomotive, and the pressure had dropped, making the animals ears hurt. The yelps and whimpers of the dogs tore at my heart. For more than six hours we kept undercover and prayed.
After the storm passed, we saw that trees had fallen on all of our buildings and there was two feet of water on the property. The roads were blocked by mountains of debris. But God had protected us and the animals. Still, those 163 animals needed care. Between Katrina and chemo, my energy was sapped.
We'd been luckier than the folks in Slidell, Louisiana, and Mississippi where the storm made landfall. My friend Sam Bailey lived in Pearlington, Mississippi, and had evacuated more than 50 animals to my kennel from his humane society there, just a mile from the Gulf.
I heard on the radio that the entire town got wiped out. I feared Sam and his wife, Lyn, were dead, lost in the 24-foot storm surge that had hit the town.
But Sam showed up later that week. He told me that they'd been trapped in his attic with 11 dogs for days, until the water subsided and someone cut through their roof. "We're okay," he said, "but there are animals stuck everywhere. I've got to send an email to let people know we need their help."
More animals? How could anyone leave their pets behind? I gathered all the supplies I could and headed to Pearlington. There were dogs trapped in trees, herds of cattle standing in four feet of water, horses atop roofs. Pearlington was destroyed. But many animals had survived. We saved hundreds and buried just as many.
The next day our cell phones began to work again and the calls from animal organizations came in. More than 400 calls in one week! Help was on the way, beginning the largest animal rescue operation in history. The rescue effort continues even today, reuniting animals with their owners and finding homes for the abandoned ones.
The scale of the tragedy of Katrina is something that pictures could never convey. I took only one photo. As I drove out of Pearlington that very first day of the rescue, I saw the remains where a church had once stood.
The steps and handrails were still there, leading to a slab of concrete. A small statue of the Virgin Mary stood in the center, and a handful of broken and bent folding chairs were lined up in makeshift rows. A cardboard box sat out front, spray-painted in fluorescent orange: "Services every day, 11 a.m. All welcome."
Through cancer, chemotherapy treatments, surgery, Katrina, I knew where my strength would come from: a powerful and loving God who can reach into our lives, even in the midst of the greatest storms, and lift us up.