Retrospective: ten years after Hurricane Katrina

IFAW helped rescue, care and transport 7,000 animals following Hurricane Katrina.  Sept.  1, 2005 ©IFAW/S. Cook

We sped down empty highways led by police escort, parking under a flooded overpass. Black hawk helicopters hovered overhead. Melodious jazz music was replaced by the sound of evacuation orders projected over unseen loudspeakers.


Ten years ago I was in New Orleans just after the force of Hurricane Katrina mounted and flooded the Big Easy. The storm’s impact on the people and animals of New Orleans was unimaginable.


Aid workers were called in from near and far. I was honored to be deployed as part of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) animal rescue team.


Pets and people were all sharing space at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center. We joined them in our dilapidated, rented RV. There were horses, pigs, lots of dogs and a few cats - all sharing space in stalls intended for exhibition rather than emergency shelter. Volunteers took care of the whole menagerie and kept careful notes to mark names and addresses in hopes of reuniting pets once the dust settled. 

IFAW rescues a 300 lb. pig named Rooty in New Orleans. Sept. 1, 2005 ©IFAW/S. Cook

The city was divided in quadrants and our team was assigned a new area each day. Our job was to navigate the streets with small boats and to rescue any animals we could find. We knocked down doors and climbed through windows. We found large dogs howling on roofs, small dogs yipping on balconies, frightened cats hiding under furniture and even a 300 pound potbellied pig named Rooty and her owner Jim. He ignored the orders to leave, holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, both he and his pig could get out.  

The author on left brings rescued dogs to the boat during Hurricane Katrina. Sept. 10, 2005 ©IFAW/S. Cook

I walked into an abandoned school; there was a Rottweiler and a Shih Tzu each hiding in a classroom cupboard. They had been alone in this makeshift shelter, their owners forced to leave several days before. They seemed very happy to see us - walking into their carriers without even a bark. We gave them food and water and brought them to the shelter. It was a good day.


More than 200 animal groups worked together to save thousands of animals. Somehow through all of the chaos, many pets eventually made their way back home. I was lucky enough to reunite an 8-month-old terrier puppy, named Coco, with her family. They had relocated to Decatur, Georgia just outside of Atlanta and Coco was being taken care of at a shelter at Louisiana State University. Coco gave kisses to the whole family especially her 7-yr-old brother DJ, who happily carried her inside. I went home with a smile on my face, feeling I had made a small difference in the wake of that terrible storm.

Coco, an 8 month old terrier is reunited with her family in Georgia after being separated during Hurricane Katrina. Oct. 1, 2005 ©IFAW

Since then, we have passed national legislation to include pets in disaster planning so they are rescued and sheltered too. This will make a big difference for families like Jim and DJ’s.


The past few weeks, national and international animal rescue teams have been in Louisiana practicing their skills at a disaster response boot camp. They recreated hands-on water rescue scenarios using animal mannequins, boats and specialized equipment and refreshed their skills on pet first aid, animal sheltering and fire rescue.


A decade later, things have improved. We are better organized and better prepared. We can never let another Katrina happen again.



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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy