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The Road to Recovery

Flooded by Katrina’s storm surge, the Humane Society of South Mississippi gathers strength and moves on

Flooded by Katrina’s storm surge, the Humane Society of South Mississippi gathers strength and moves on

DIANE WEBBER/HSUS
“When I got to the road leading up to the shelter, it was underwater,” recalled Anita Holliman, the intake manager of the Humane Society of South Mississippi. Holliman had braved Katrina’s winds and rains to check on the animals. Unable to go any further in her compact car, she drove the eight miles back to her house to get her son, whose truck helped them navigate the flood.

More than a week after the storm had destroyed her hometown, Holliman still had to get her voice under control when she talked about what they’d found. She spoke in small, clipped bursts. She used precise, careful words, looking away as she described the storm surge that had caused nearby estuaries and the sewage treatment plant next door to overflow, filling the shelter with four feet of water.

“When we got into the building, it became immediately apparent that any of the animals in the lower cages—the cats and puppies—had perished,” she said. Holliman and her son were able to get some food in to the animals who had survived, but in the middle of the storm there was not much two people could do. About two dozen animals died. One hundred thirty made it through, either because they were in cages the water didn’t reach or because they swam or clung to the fences to keep afloat.

Nobody expected it. During Hurricane Camille in 1969, the worst storm in memory, the flooding in the building was limited to six inches of water. The level of storm surge that hit the coast after Katrina was “simply unfathomable,” says Tara High, the shelter’s new executive director.

A former real estate agent who was serving as the president of the shelter’s board at the time, High had been considering a full-time job in animal welfare—and didn’t think twice about stepping in to lead the skeleton crew who returned to the shelter. “About three days after the storm I called assuming that everything was … OK, and got through to the director of operations. She kind of indicated that there appeared to be a lack of leadership,” says High, noting that the former executive director resigned immediately after the storm. “She said that if I could swing by and give the troops a ‘Hooah,’ that would mean a lot to them. I did that day and I haven’t left since.”

She had her work cut out for her: Staff morale was low, the remaining workers and volunteers were exhausted, and many of them had lost their homes. The whole building was full of trash and filth from the sewage plant. The crew of six who returned to work managed to clear most of that out. Gradually, more staff returned, and new people signed on to help. The facility reopened and started taking in animals again just four weeks after the storm.

But the building had been a challenge even before Katrina. Used as an armory during World War II, it was never designed to hold animals. “It’s just a horrible place, and in the wintertime it’s cold and wet and we’re trying to keep heat in and we tarp everything and try to bring as many [animals] into the indoor runs as possible,” says High. “It’s just a mess. And it was like that long before the storm.”

Fortunately, the organization had already planned to move into a new building—a move that was accelerated in the aftermath of Katrina. Opened in February, the new building sustained little damage and will serve the community well, High believes.

While High says the organization’s major goal has been to survive each day, the staff and volunteers have accomplished much more. Not only did they get the damaged building into working shape quickly, they also found time in the midst of the chaos to chip more than 1,500 animals in five days. They even surveyed owners of unaltered pets at the microchipping clinic to find out whether they would sterilize their animals if the service were free.

Sixty-nine percent said yes. High used the survey results to solicit $58,000 from PetSmart, Petfinder and Liz Claiborne. With the extra cash and the help of a local vet, the shelter sterilized 500 animals and gave out certificates for 500 more surgeries.

“I think that microchip clinic really opened the eyes for a lot of us,” says High. “We see how receptive our community is right now to getting things done for their pets that they would not have been as interested in before the storm.”

The Humane Society of South Mississippi has also developed a plan that will make it self-sufficient in the event of another disaster. The ASPCA has purchased a transport vehicle for evacuation of animals, and the shelter is developing letters of understanding with other groups for holding animals during emergencies. High is working with the commander of the community’s Emergency Operations Center to ensure that pets are included in future disaster plans.

Still, High worries the shelter is on shaky ground financially. While clearing out her office in her old real estate building in January, salvaging desks and other usable supplies before the demolition crew came to tear the building down, High described what she saw out of the second-story window. “It’s just mass destruction,” she said. “It’s slabs, you know. … The church, the first floor is washed out—you can see through the top. And that’s our donor base—not the church necessarily, but the people who go to that church. And a lot of them were living down the beach and their whole lives have been ripped out from underneath them.”

Grants from The HSUS and the ASPCA, totaling more than $1 million, have helped the organization rebuild. Best Friends Animal Society has helped transport animals to other shelters. But because of the animal population boom in the wake of Katrina, High says, the group could still use help with the influx of animals. “Puppies we have been able to manage; everybody wants puppies,” she says. “But we still have large animals, large dogs, who need homes too. That’s where we find that we really start filling up.”

Transports by Best Friends, combined with a recent offer by the Dumb Friends League in Denver, Colorado, to take 40 animals a week from the humane society, have made a difference. “Our euthanasia rate this past month was 24 percent, which went from like 67 percent the same month last year. We’ve been able to do that because of transport, and our adoptions have been strong,” says High.

The successes have been a morale booster for the staff, which, amazingly, still includes the employee who braved the storm to save the animals. Though she’s endured so much, including the recent death of her mother, Holliman remains there, working every day to help rebuild.

 

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