‘It was unimaginable’

VETERINARY MEDICINE/A Penn Vet School professor joins FEMA team in Gulf.

During her bus ride into the Katrina-ravaged areas of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region early this month, Cynthia Otto says it was hard to grasp the extent of the devastation: In the dead of night, with no power throughout the region, she simply couldn’t see what the storm had done.

It was only after several days of preparing—and waiting—at their base of operations that Otto and fellow members of FEMA’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Team finally were ordered to begin their work: And it didn’t take long for the team members to realize just how bad the damage was.

“It was unimaginable,” says Otto, an associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “There was a sailboat I saw that ended up in a tree. The force that caused that must have been unimaginable.”

Those forces—the winds, rains and storm surge of Hurricane Katrina—killed more than 1,000 people along the Gulf Coast and left much of the region’s infrastructure destroyed. Katrina also killed an untold number of animals.

It was the job of Otto and the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team to tend to those animal victims—both dead and alive. While the team would eventually help nurse some storm survivors back to life, they spent much of their time tending to the ones that weren’t so lucky.

On one particularly painful day, Otto and her team had to collect bodies from an animal shelter that had been severely flooded. Only a handful of the animals at the shelter lived through the storm. Many, many others did not.

In total, the team would collect 1.7 tons of bodies in their time along the Gulf Coast.

“That whole first part, we were mostly dealing with dead animals, and that was tough,” Otto said. “We like treating live animals.”

There were, however, some happy moments during an otherwise somber trip: One day, the team treated a puppy with a broken leg that had been picked up by a rescue team. Otto and her colleagues nursed him back to health and, the last Otto heard, the dog was to be adopted by the rescuers who found it.

Another day, the team treated a Chihuahua that had suffered severe burns on its back, possibly before the storm had even hit. Though the dog’s owner was short on money, and gasoline was at a premium, he made a long drive from home to the base several times so the dog could have its burns dressed.

The story is proof, Otto says, of how much people love their animals. So is the fact that some homeowners in the region refused to evacuate specifically because they were not allowed to bring their pets to shelters.

Otto says officials sometimes don’t understand the deep connection between people and their pets, and the heartbreaking decision those people face when deciding whether to leave their pets behind. In the future, Otto says, officials must find a way to allow people to bring their pets with them.

“It’s something that’s been on the radar screen for as long as I can remember,” she says. “That’s a huge issue. Even if these people let go [and leave], they’re going to come back before it’s safe.”

Originally published on October 6, 2005