In the early days after the storm, McSweeney rescued clients' animals by boat, now symbolically tied to the railing in front of his practice. With the waters receding, a small team of friends and colleagues throw food and carriers in the back of vans, wave their American Veterinary Medical Association badges at National Guard checkpoints and head into ground zero on a missions to find pets.
McSweeney never imagined he'd break into clients' homes."I've never done an illegal thing in my life; now I know 100 ways to break into a house."
He runs down the list of lessons from the field: doorknobs fail, doors swell shut, cabinets fall from the walls and refrigerators float. All the houses look the same, covered in mold and what McSweeney calls "black stuff." Windows often afford the best means of entry; and be careful with stairs, he notes.
Frightened animals tend to hide despite hunger. What the rescuers can't catch, they feed, water and return to look for tracks in the muck that blankets everything. Back at the Metairie practice, Beverly is charged with taking digital photos of the pets and e-mailing them to clients for identification. The reunions "are the best," she smiles.
Now approaching one month after the storm, Levy and McSweeney brace for homeowners to return and the likely onslaught of severely dehydrated and emaciated pets to come through the Metairie practice's doors.
"Every cage here is filled," McSweeney says. "You wonder, 'am I physically up to this?' Then you realize you don't have a choice. You have to be."
As for the destruction, Levy and McSweeney are beginning to make peace with it. They don't worry about the finger pointing that engrosses the nation concerning allegations of federal emergency mismanagement.
"You don't have time to worry about the politics when you're wondering where you're going to sleep at night," McSweeney says.
Instead, they focus on the "small miracles" that have helped them get through each day. After Rita peeled off McSweeney's practice roof, the veterinarian and his wife raced through the night with litter pans to catch and dump water. Their efforts were saved when a pair of Florida roofers stopped and offered to fire down a temporary roof.
"One step forward was all I needed to know I'd keep moving and recover again," he says.
Cleaning up after what's arguably the worst U.S. hurricane on record has been a test of character, a learning experience, the veterinarians say. McSweeney credits Seinfeld reruns on a fuzzy television for his emotional stability and ability to laugh.
"Hidden in the emotion of all this stuff, you have to appreciate what you still have left. We're going to actually get through this mess."