International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW) helped rescue, care and transport 7,000 animals following Hurricane Katrina.
Ten years ago I was leading IFAW's animal rescue efforts when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
I should be able to quote endless statistics about the number of animals affected and the thousands of victims IFAW helped rescue. I should be able to explain exactly what happened, who was there, and what we did on each of those fateful days.
Yet I can't.
For me, like everyone who was there, the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina are an adrenaline fueled blur of tragedies and small triumphs.
- I remember the gut-wrenching calls from boat crews who were just outside the city and ready to respond, but were held back because "animal rescuers" were not considered essential.
- I remember the glow from a long line of rescue vehicles waiting to unload hundreds of emaciated, exhausted animals each evening.
- I remember the heat. The chaos. The confusion.
- The relief each time a truckload of rescued animals left for new homes.
And most of all, I remember one woman who changed my perspective forever.
She had lost everything in the flood. No home. No clothes. No way to shelter and feed her animals.
When I told her IFAW could help, her eyes brightened and I saw the first hint of a smile begin to emerge. I smiled back. After all, I was leading an extraordinary IFAW team.
Of course I could help.
And then, just as quickly, her eyes darkened. She locked onto me with a gaze that somehow conveyed how remarkably strong, and yet how close to the breaking point she truly was.
"We've lost everything but our animals. I've heard endless promises, but everyone else has let us down. Why should I trust you now?" she asked.
The look in her eyes and the quiet power of her voice forced me to stop and truly understand the true magnitude of our responsibility.
I'd been involved in countless rescues. I helped move truckload after truckload of cats, dogs, goats, pigs and an entire Noah's ark of refugees. I was working alongside some of the best animal rescuers in the world and despite all the odds, we were saving animals.
I now realize I was running on a heady mix of adrenaline and exhaustion. I had insulated myself from the heartbreak around me by focusing on my ability to do something.