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 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 e-mail 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, 11:00 A.M. All welcome.”
Through cancer, chemotherapy treatments, surgery, Katrina, I know where my
strength will come from—from a powerful and loving God who can reach into our
lives, even in the midst of the greatest storms, and lift us up.