NEW ORLEANS — About 1,100 veterinarians and 70 practices were located in Katrina's disaster zone according to early estimates from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). At presstime, no DVMs were reported missing or severely injured.
What's being dubbed the most deadly and costly hurricane on record killed hundreds and relegated 96,000 square miles designated a federal disaster area. Of the estimated 483,000 animals living in the hurricane's path, 2,500 had been rescued as of Sept. 10, according to officials from the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Officials would not estimate the numbers of animals still awaiting rescue.
"At this point, recovery from something this massive isn't a sprint; it's a marathon," says Dr. E. Mac Huddleston, executive secretary of the Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association. "We will be feeling the effects from Katrina for years to come."
"Right now, veterinary hospitals close to the disaster area that are up and running are operating much like MASH units," reports former LVMA president Dr. David McGraw. "Every new challenge is different, and I thought we were prepared, but we weren't. I don't think veterinarians are given enough training to deal with human suffering that we should. Animals are attached to people, and it's really a challenge to deal with this. This hurricane was the worst nightmare come true in Louisiana."
In New Orleans, where the serious flooding damaged at least 36 practices, one hospital stayed open.
Metairie Small Animal Hospital, the area's largest practice, stood on high ground. Its DVMs rode out the storm and remained as the area's only semi-functional veterinary hospital after the winds died.
Katrina, however, was more than the skeleton crew of doctors and technicians could handle, Dr. Siegfried Mayer, one of six practice owners, tells DVM Newsmagazine in an interview.
"The generator was repaired once during the storm, and the alternator gave out shortly after," he says. "All the while, we were fielding calls from people wanting us to check on pets they'd left in homes."
Once it became apparent the generator and supplies would not hold out, the doctors began devising an evacuation plan.
"We initially asked the National Guard to assist us by taking the animals to a drop off point that they would be passing on their route," Mayer says. "But when red tape got in the way, we asked one of the parish officials to help, which in turn sent busses two days after the hurricane that took about 100 animals and one doctor; then another bus came Thursday."
The veterinarians waded through 3- to 4-feet-deep water to load the animals on busses before setting out again to help other stranded animals.
"We went out of the hospital to give fresh water and food to animals we knew were in homes," Mayer says. "My partner and I saw horrible things. People had sandbagged their homes hoping it would be enough to keep Katrina out. After the storm, sandbags were everywhere, so at first I thought I was looking at a sandbag, but it was actually a body. No one wants to talk about this; it's just unreal."
Some of the animals had perished in homes before the doctors could reach them, but Mayer says he chooses to focus on moving forward to not become overwhelmed by the calamity.
The partners held a meeting to strategize, determining a skeleton crew best suited the needs of clients and the practice.
"Our generator is repaired, but we don't want to take a chance it will give out again," Mayer says. "We have water pressure, but no general power. At this point, we'll assist emergencies and not take boarders in case the generator goes out again."
"When I was leaving the area, I saw a client of mine getting food for his dog an hour outside of the city," Baumer recalls. "He said he was going to ride out the storm."
Looters became a concern for the veterinarians who did stay, citing concerns for their safety, especially at night.
"We had heard all sorts of things about people breaking into stores, doing whatever suited them," Mayer says. "None of us slept very well at night thinking about that and the immensity of the situation."
The veterinarians at Metairie stayed in the halls of their practice where fans helped circulate airflow. Throughout the hurricane the animals had generator-powered air conditioning while the veterinarians had only fans.
"When we were preparing for the hurricane, we filled sinks, bathtubs and garbage cans with water," Mayer notes. "We were prepared for everything except for where we would bathe. So for five days we went without showers or air conditioning, but we were dedicated to the animal relief effort."
Animals at surrounding practices reportedly perished from dehydration due to the intense heat and lack of water.
"With no generators, the inside of buildings became as hot as a car with the windows rolled up," he says.
While Mayer predicts many people will not return to the area, he remains optimistic that many will be eager to rebuild as well.
Other areas weren't so lucky.
LVMA President Dr. Robert Gross used to practice in Chalmette, La., a New Orleans suburb, but that was before the hurricane. Although authorities have not allowed civilians in the area, he knows the area is completely flooded.
"Rumors are flying," Gross says. "I don't quite know what will happen at this point, but there is talk of never reclaiming St. Bernard Parish due to toxins, benzine and oil in the water."
All of the animals at Buccaneer Villa Veterinary Hospital, owned by Gross, were evacuated prior to the hurricane, he says. Animals at the Animal Emergency Clinic in Metairie, which is managed by Gross, were cared for by a doctor who stayed behind.
"There will be many sad stories to be told as this unfolds," Gross says. "I heard about 40 animals died when the cooling system failed in one of the rescue vehicles that collected animals from clinics and the roadside."
The home Gross owned in Mississippi was pummeled by the storm, rendering it unlivable.
"At this point I have lost my practice, my home and even my car," he says. "I went back to my house to collect some valuables before looters come."
The big question of what insurance will cover is being asked by all afflicted practitioners.
Metairie Small Animal Hospital had prepared for the worst with numerous coverage extras, including business interruption insurance, however an inspector's initial response was the practice would not be fully covered.
"This is not what people want to hear," Mayer says. "I'm really concerned that since we're already being told by our insurance carrier that we won't be covered, that many companies will not be stepping up to the plate."
"I'm concerned that we will lose some of our workers permanently if the insurance doesn't kick in," Mayer adds. "We can't afford to pay them if there isn't comparable business, and they can't afford not to work."
At presstime veterinarians and staff were cleaning the hospital to prepare for a return to normalcy.
In other practice news: The country's big corporate practices will need some work to return to business as usual, too. Banfield reports four practices were affected by the storm: three in Louisiana and one in Mississippi. VCA Antech Inc. announced the closing of VCA Airline Hospital in Metairie, with the extent of damage unknown at presstime.
The impact to coastal Mississippi practices is far more sketchy.
"We're having trouble communicating with our own staff because cell phone towers are down; there are isolated areas with no electricity, and everyone is trying to help stranded people," says Ronnie White, emergency operations coordinator, Mississippi Board of Animal Health. "There are hundreds of horses that were evacuated, but hundreds more left behind. We're just putting animals in every nook and cranny in the state that we can find that is safer than where they were."
Dr. Jim Watson, Mississippi state veterinarian, says there are 3.2 million confirmed poultry deaths, while the number could span up to 5 million barring ongoing counts.
Other agricultural industries did not give estimates as to the impact the hurricane has had at presstime, however, without electricity, the dairy industry is suffering considering milking machines cannot operate without electricity, Huddleston adds.
"Support from the veterinary community, drug companies and humane agencies has been essential and provides light at the end of the tunnel," Huddleston says.
Many hotels that normally do not allow pets are now making exceptions Christiansen says.
Veterinary students from Mississippi State University are staying on campus because of flooded living conditions, Christiansen says. Classes however, are in session.