Coping with Catastrophe: LSU dean says planning would have helped initial recovery from the most costly hurricanes

Coping with Catastrophe: LSU dean says planning would have helped initial recovery from the most costly hurricanes

Nov 01, 2005

Veterinary medicine's response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita ranked at the top of this LSU dean's list. Dr. Michael Groves reports that while the storms put financial pressure on the small veterinary school, DVMs stepped up in big ways.
BATON ROUGE, LA. — When the last of an estimated 2,000 displaced pets are finally reunited with owners or adopted from Louisiana State University (LSU), Dr. Michael Groves will be signing off on this tab.

While the battering and flooding from hurricanes Katrina and Rita have been dubbed the most costly in U.S. history, the price tag to the veterinary school, nestled two hours northwest of the serious Katrina flooding, isn't trivial.

Excluding tons in supply donations, the bill to care for rescued pets likely will amount to about one-sixth of the $5.9-million veterinary teaching hospital's annual operating budget — $800,000, without tip.

The gratuity is more likely calculated in the vast experience LSU officials learned from this disaster, and the tireless efforts of professors, staff and volunteer veterinarians in helping these animals, Groves smiles. He and LSU colleagues plan to share their experiences in an effort to better prepare for natural disasters.

In an exclusive interview with DVM Newsmagazine, Groves talked about the successes and challenges posed by these hurricanes as well as the unanticipated role a small veterinary school would play in the rescue and recovery of animals following a forced evacuation under an international microscope.

"I think our government needs to realize that there are twice as many households with pets as there are children," Groves says. "I have been told that a child is more likely to have a pet than a father living at home. People would refuse to leave their homes, and some died in refusing to leave their pets. If the government was going to get one message from the veterinary community, then it's people should be allowed to bring their pets with them if safe. It is not right to make people abandon their pets," Groves says.

As the radar images of Katrina lit up national newscasts in late August, it wasn't enough to foreshadow the flooding catastrophe yet to unfold.

"No one ever told a veterinary school that you would ever have to do something like this," he explains. "We are not an animal shelter. If you were to walk up to a major human hospital in a metropolitan area and say we are going to bring you a bunch of refugees and we are not going to give you any money, and you are going to have to deal with volunteers and anything you have out of your own pocket, well, it would be horrifying."

Lessons learned
In the initial stages of the recovery, LSU veterinarians Drs. David Senior and Becky Adcock, and area DVMs Patrick Thistlethwaite and Paula Drone, walked over to a donated LSU Agcenter's Parker Coliseum with a table, an empty building and a plan. The end result turned into the largest makeshift animal shelter in history.

Two days after the storm, 500 animals unloaded at LSU. On Sept. 12, the steady influx of displaced pets peaked at 1,287 animals. The university's numbers would ebb and flow and slowly recede as pets were either reunited or adopted out. The shelter was slated to close on Oct. 15.

"We were overwhelmed," Groves recalls. "All the staff and faculty stepped up big time. They were working 12 or more hours, seven days a week," he says.

"You get exposed to the human misery and the horrible conditions that happened to people's pets. You see the misery of the people and misery of the animals. The upside is the outpouring of kindness and generosity that I have witnessed by the veterinary profession, and I mean veterinarians and veterinary technicians and those working in veterinary practices."