Plaquemines Parish Animal Rescues
Animal Rescue in Louisiana
By SSG David Strobel
21 Sep 2005
When trying to rescue pets from a flooded home, it just doesn’t seem fair to be chased by a large underwater predator.
1LT Gary Stewart of the New Mexico National Guard thought he knew the risks of wading into the floodwater. “I think the lady who owned this place loved to knit because there was yarn everywhere, wrapped around everything,” he said. “We crossed down power lines. We had to crawl over and under them to get to the dogs.”
1LT Stewart and MAJ Randy Brady, also of the New Mexico National Guard, had been tasked to feed horses and cows in Boothville, deep in the southern part of Plaquemines Parish. On the way back north, passing through Port Sulphur, “we heard all these dogs barking in a single wide trailer, a little one, only about 40 or 50 feet long,” said 1LT Stewart.
The two had been in waders, but soon worried about how much protection they really needed. “We didn’t see nothin,” said MAJ Brady. “We just heard a big old splash and saw a lot of bubbles heading right for us. Whatever it was, it was big.”
“The bubbles got closer and closer,” said 1LT Stewart. “I called to the major, ‘hey, I think we’ve got an alligator after us!’ We got out of the water in a hurry.”
The rescuers found a small, flat-bottomed boat. “We didn’t have paddles, so we made a pair,” said 1LT Stewart. “One was a 2 by 4, the other was a piece of molding from a trailer.” The pair, now protected from attack, returned for the pets.
The dogs gave 1LT Stewart more trouble than he expected, based on their size. “They were only about this big,” said 1LT Stewart, holding his hands less than two feet apart. “I think they were Pomeranians. And boy, they have sharp teeth.” While trying to get one under control, one dog bit through his leather gloves, giving him a set of puncture marks in his left hand.
“I thought the dogs wanted to be saved,” said 1LT Stewart. “They were in the windows, barking at everyone who drove past. Turns out not to be the case.”
“It’s amazing how many animals are down there,” said MAJ Brady. “These dogs are so damned scared, they’re hungry and tired. All these animals, just left behind.”
The Senior Citizen Center had been taken over and turned into a collection point for animals rescued in Plaquemines Parish. Most of the pets awaiting a reunion with their owners were dogs, some were cats. One was a calf, rescued the day before and waiting in the horse trailer owned by Linda Earnhart, a Humane Society of the US volunteer from Dallas. I asked her about how the New Mexico National Guard has helped rescue animals. "They've been wonderful! They've been bringing us animals they've rescued,” said Ms. Earnhart. “They tell us where the animals are that need rescuing. The National Guard bringing them food and water, that's the only thing that's been keeping these dogs alive.”
Plaquemines Parish vet, Dr. Stephen Hebert, had been almost overwhelmed with the animals brought to the temporary shelter. But he credits the New Mexico National Guard with helping him handle the flood of pets. "Totally fantastic, the things they've done for me,” said Dr. Hebert. “I needed a secure place for the dogs, and they brought in wood, a backhoe and people to build all my pens for me. And they did it in a day. We had a horse on the other side of a barge that had blocked the road. The National Guard people helped me haul the hay across the barge to the horse."
Dr. Hebert pointed to two dogs being walked by volunteers. "See these dogs? We have 200 dogs here. So far, 33 people have been reunited with their dogs." Dr. Hebert said soldiers and airmen from the New Mexico National Guard had directly or indirectly helped save the lives of these animals. "Anything I ask for, it isn't 'no,' it's 'how do we make it happen.'"
“Aircraft 419, UH-60, mission 649 dash 20 is off at this time.” Our Blackhawk picked us up at the Belle Chasse High School football field. Our mission was to find cattle that were starving to death. Someone had called the New Mexico National Guard command post, saying they had spotted a number (no one knew what number) of cows, stuck on a levee somewhere in the far southern part of Plaquemines Parish.
We cruised about 400 feet above the marshlands, the flooded homes and the Mississippi River, now back to normal. Below us, hundreds, maybe thousands of homes rested where the water had left them, scattered on their sides and far from where they should be. A red and white helicopter laid on its side and dead in the floodwaters, hundreds of boats of all sizes swamped and sunk or resting on land… as though a giant child had a tantrum and kicked over his playset community.
One of the voices on the aircraft’s intercom breathed a hushed, “Wow…” as we passed lower and slower. “Look at those fishing boats, beached right there on the levee.” Another voice, and the pilot pointed, “That huge barge, way up on the land, that’s gotta be a museum, right?” I answered, “No, that was washed up during Katrina.” A pause, then. “Oh, wow…”
I looked out of the open door, seeing how the stuff of people’s lives had leaked out of their homes, spread out for all to see… a dining room chair, magazines, bicycles, coolers, and hundreds and hundreds of cars, pickups, vans… scattered on land and in the water.
In Boothville, I saw oil tanks, emptied of their contents, surrounded by poisoned water, the water turned a sickly yellow, turning to green, turning to black. I remembered the scene in “American Graffiti, when Harrison Ford insults the color of Paul LeMat’s hot rod, “Sort of a cross between piss yellow and puke green ain't it?” I wondered if the movie’s writer had ever seen a sight like this. It was a good source for a mortal insult.
Then, over the intercom, “There they are, I see them, at ten o’clock.” Ahead and on our left were the cattle, standing on a grassy levee, several miles north of Venice and far west of the highway. I could see a dozen, two dozen, three dozen and a handful of horses. We flew low, checking their location and scanning the roads, seeing how to reach them and hopefully pull them out of harms way. We turned east to the river, then north, back to the command post. “Eight miles out, landing at Belle Chasse High School,” the crew called on the radio. This one mission, out of 259 so far, accomplished.
We stopped about 20 miles from the true end of the road, in Venice, LA. "It's all the same from here on down," said outgoing B Company commander CPT Danny Olson, as he turned our Humvee around. We were doing a site survey, looking at our new area of operations. CPT Pia Romero was getting a briefing from the man she was replacing, called a “right seat ride.”
Moments after we had turned back north to our headquarters, MSgt Brad Nation called out, "Hey, there's a dog in that boat!" We stopped and walked back to a Jon boat sitting at an awkward angle, partially off of its trailer by the side of the road. Sure enough, there was a large black-and-white dog in the boat, and another smaller, weaker yellow dog lying nearby. The larger dog barked furiously as CPT Romero tried to get it calmed down.
Someone asked, "what do we do if we get it?" We had dog food but no cage. I supposed we could hold the two dogs on our laps. CPT Olson joined the hunt, but when cornered, the dogs just leaped into the polluted water, the same goop we were eager to keep off of ourselves. The yellow dog started to lap up the oily mess and all of us groaned at once. "Oh, please stop doing that," I called to the dog, who just looked up at me suspiciously.
As we were wondering what to do next, a car with California license plates and a camo rubber boat on the top pulled up. I asked, "Are you folks with animal rescue?" The man and woman got out and said that they were, and would gladly get the dogs. The woman told me her name was Marey Christmas and her husband was Terry Jones. I took pictures as he splashed through the water, managing to snag the yellow dog but not her energetic companion.
We took the caged dog north, but only got about a mile down the road when MSgt Nation's sharp eyes spotted another dog, this time under a ruined single wide trailer that had slipped sidewise, half on the road and half in the ditch. The brown dog was very pregnant, hardly moving and, I quickly saw, was not alone. Another brown dog, with white highlights, lay beside and behind her, with her ribs showing. Both panted heavily, whether from fear or hunger or thirst, I could only guess.
As I stood up to look for a rope to help capture the dogs, my eyes locked with another pair of eyes, looking directly into mine. I froze. The dark, brown, unblinking eyes belonged to a large male pit bull dog, standing ten feet away, inside the wall-less house. I spoke gently to him and he blinked, sniffed my way and took a few steps to the side. I climbed into the fallen home, between the wooden structure where drywall had been washed away by the flood. The dog panicked and scrambled to get out of the small room (so ruined that I could not tell what had been in the room before water carried debris and mud into it.) He had trouble squirming through the broken door, but managed to make his exit.
I followed as best as I could, lifting first a cupboard and then a table out of the way of the door, trying with limited success to keep my footing on the mud-slicked, tilted floor. Once in the next room, the dog looked for an escape. Finding none, he turned and faced me, shaking and whimpering. I grabbed a bathrobe from the muck, asked MSgt Nation for his knife, and cut free the thick hem. I found a piece of molding and asked MSgt Nation to cut a notch in it. I then had a field expedient leash and deployment pole. While softly talking to the dog, I carefully lifted the pole and leash over his head, gently tugging on the leash to tighten it. Slowly, slowly... and I had him. Still whimpering but not attacking as I expected, I led the dog out through the sprung and partially open front door, handing him off to MSgt Nation.
I looked around for another leash, finding a power cord to the family's iron. I cut it free, tied a loop into the end and took it along with the notched molding, outside for the other dogs. I worked my way under the home. Momma was upset (I don't blame her) but too weak to fight or evade as I slipped the power cord leash around her neck, speaking reassurances all the while. I pulled the cord tight, crawled backwards into the sun and persuaded her to follow, handing the makeshift leash to CPT Romero.
Once more into the house for supplies, once more slipping on the mud and off-kilter floor (but not quite into the slime and muck) and I found a telephone cord for a third leash. Back under the house, another yellow dog spoken to gently, another doggy neck surrounded by a leash, and a third dog was blinking and shuddering in the sunshine.
So what to do with the dogs? We looked south, waiting a few moments for the California couple. Instead, we saw a military truck, filled with New Mexican soldiers and airmen, medics getting a firsthand look at the troubles. We decided to load the dogs into the truck, since they had room on the floor. I lifted the two yellow dogs into the truck, then looked at the pit bull. He returned a steady gaze without wagging his tail... neither looking promising for a friendly encounter.
CPT Olson and I made a couple of half-hearted tries, but as soon as the pit bull made a noise or moved to see what the hell these two guys were doing back where he couldn't see, we stopped and moved back. Finally, I took a deep breath (difficult in this humidity, no less the smell) held the dog and gently lifted him into the back of the truck. No problems from the dog, not even a whimper.
I climbed into the truck, holding the pit bull's leash and petting his nervous yellow mates. Approaching Port Sulphur, we were flagged down by a family with two destroyed tires on their pickup truck. They asked for our help and we offered to give them a lift, carrying one of the rims for a new tire. Then CPT Romero pointed behind the family and said, "Look, another dog!" A small, yellow (what is it with yellow dogs around here?) dog with bright eyes and a perky disposition trotted to us, looking for a handout or some friendly attention. I got her a handful of dog food and she spent the next 20 minutes coaxing it to her. She got her hand on the scruff of the dog's neck, I took hold, slipped my belt over the neck and carried it back to the humvee.
A long ride back to the shelter, and we handed the animals to a young volunteer at the emergency shelter. As we were leaving, a middle-aged man walked out with a small yellow dog trotting behind him. The man had reunited with his dog, and both were happy, relieved. I hoped the animals we had just rescued had as positive a future as these two.
By SSG David Strobel
22 Sep 05
“Be ready to see something you’ve never seen before in your life.” Kenneth Ortolano, a volunteer with the Plaquemines Parish Emergency Operations office, pointed out the windshield of a Michigan Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Below and coming up quick, the crew could see what was left of Venice, Louisiana. After hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t much.
“Look at all the boats on the backside of the levee. That was a marina with a bunch of condos. See where the white truck is? That’s the end of the road. The barge is right over there.”
The Chinook crew and New Mexico National Guard volunteers had already dropped off two dozen bales of hay to about 100 head of cattle. The cattle, stranded on a levee for more than three weeks, were the survivors, less than half of the original herd. The rest had been killed by the hurricane outright, or starved to death after the storm.
“They’ve been getting fed, getting their oats,” said Ortolano. “But high tide, the tidal surge, puts ‘em in danger, with this storm coming.” He looked out at the gathering clouds. Hurricane Rita was on the way. And unless the cattle moved, they would probably die soon.
Ortolano’s plan was for the Chinook to recover a beached cattle barge, a barge specially made to haul about half a dozen cattle and able to be towed by a small boat. “We gotta bring the barge to where the cows are, Port Sulphur,” he said. “Otherwise, we gonna lose the cattle.”
The Chinook landed a few hundred yards from the barge, and the crew and volunteers cautiously made their way through mud-slicked roads, picking their way through the debris. The barge rested crookedly on a pier, several feet over the polluted bay water. Soldiers and airmen scrambled over the barge, fastening a set of steel cables onto hard points and clearing trash blown onto the barge by the 175 mph winds of Katrina.
The air mission commander, CPT Todd Fitzpatrick, examined the barge and the situation. He asked, “what do you think, should we go for it?” CW4 Matthew Zelenak, the pilot in command, slowly nodded. “Looks good to me,” he replied. “The only way I can do this is line up like this,” he said, pointing to the south. To either side stood dangerous obstacles; twin metal columns of a boat ramp to the west, a wooden light pole to the east. The helicopter just might fit between them and allow flight engineer SFC Steward Wenino to snag the “D” ring on the cables and carry off the 10,000 lb barge.
CPT Fitzpatrick looked worried. “We’ll have a hard left crosswind.” The chief warrant officer nodded again. “If we get unstable,” he told Wenino, “we’ll chop it.”
As the volunteers reboarded the CH-47, Ortolano asked the aircrew for a moment of their time. “You might think this is corny, but I hope we can bow our heads in prayer for a moment.” No one objected. “Heavenly Father,” prayed Ortolano, “we need your help. God, bless these men here. Hold their hands steady. Keep us safe. Bless us with some good wind for a few seconds.”
The giant helicopter lifted off, circled once and set up between the obstacles, the downwash from the twin rotors kicking up dust, spray and loose trash left by the floodwaters. SFC Wenino reached for the cables with his pole and hook, but he couldn’t reach it. The Chinook couldn’t drop low enough to snag the cable, coming within ten feet of the dangerous obstacles. After ten minutes of trying, the crew abandoned the effort, flying back to Naval Air Station New Orleans in Belle Chasse.
Ortolano wouldn’t give up. On the return flight, he worked out a way to reach the barge, by using a 30-foot cable. A volunteer would fasten the cable to the D ring and the crew would lift the barge to a clear area, re-rig without the cable and fly the barge to the stranded cattle. The crew agreed to refuel and try again.
But the approaching storm wouldn’t allow another attempt. Shortly after returning to base, all military aircraft in the area were ordered to fly to safety, away from hurricane Rita’s destructive reach. Ortolano shook his head sadly. “Them cattle survived the last storm. All we can do is pray they survive this one.”
A cow wandered across the baseball field behind Belle Chasse High School. But this cow wasn’t lost or abandoned. She was watched over by Senior Airman Desiree Wright of the New Mexico Air National Guard. “She needs a scrub, but that’ll stress her out,” said SRA Wright. “Dirty and happy is better than clean and stressed.”
SRA Wright knows farm animals, and that’s why she volunteered for this duty. “I grew up on a farm in Belen, so I’ve been around ‘em long enough to know. This cow is extremely stressed out. And you can see she has a cut on her side.” Earlier that day, the state veterinarian was at Belle Chasse High School and SRA Wright asked him to take a moment to examine the animal. “He looked at her and said she’d be fine, just let her heal on her own. She’s eating, drinking, and has plenty of grass and shade.”
“We named her “Homerun” since we’re keeping her on the baseball diamond,” said MAJ Thomas Gonzales, the executive officer for Task Force New Mexico. When MAJ Gonzales heard of a cow that needed a temporary home, he said she could stay and become the unit’s mascot.
Local professional wrangler Stephen Menard
had rescued the cow. “I ran across that cow down by Empire bridge, where everything was a disaster,” said Menard. “She was out loose and I roped her on foot.
Captain Rick Maloney, with the Middlesex Sheriffs Office, watched the rescue. “He asked us for a rope. We got one out of a destroyed hardware store.” A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Maloney said he has never seen an example of roping with his own eyes. “He (Minard) did a great job. One shot and he got it. But I think he’s done this sort of thing before.”
Homerun isn’t back with her owner yet, but she is one step closer. Lori Wilson, director of “Rescue Ranch,” a non-profit Belle Chasse organization that takes in at-risk children and animals, picked up the cow Friday night, along with local cattleman Gary Hess. “I go to the parish meetings. That’s how I heard about this cow needing a place to stay.” Hess has 180 acres and can keep up to 150 head of cattle.
Wilson said she would try to return the cow to her owner as soon as possible. “In the mean time, she’ll be safe.”