Friday, April 07, 2006

Back to Refrigerator and Pet Stories

But this time there's a twist.

Those of us who were here right after the storm remember the panic of evacuated residents over their pets who had been left behind. Frightened and concerned, people posted on message boards and blogs, called radio stations and tv stations trying to alert someone to the presence of their dog or cat still in the house. Trying to get them some help.

We also remember the rows of stacks of piles of mountains of refrigerators that covered every sidewalk in the Quarter and became impromptu artists' canvasses while they waited to be picked up. The refrigerators became a standing joke among residents and it wasn't just the Quarter that was graced with their presence. Every block of the City that was accessible was also filled with duct taped refrigerators, in front of homes, bars, restaurants, stores. The Mardi Gras krewes really used the symbol of the refrigerator to advantage in their floats this year. Those fridges will be included in all images of post-Katrina New Orleans remembered by those of us here.

In the wake of all this, I was repeatedly asked in huffy tones by people who were not here, "Why on earth didn't they take their animals? They don't deserve to have them if they left them behind! I hope they ARE scared for their cat/dog." Others were indignant about the refrigerators. "My god, why didn't they clean them out before they left? Hundreds of refrigerators we're seeing on the news. What were these people thinking?"

What they were thinking was that they'd be home in a day, maybe two---three being the worst case scenario.

All of those with pets left behind that we encountered, had left them with tons of food and water. One dog we found when we were helping the rescue organizations had been left with over 50 lbs of dog food and at least 25 gallons of water. (This dog, I might add, thought he'd hit the best buffet in town! He was fat as a tick when we got him out of his yard with the help of the 101st Airborne.) The owners of these animals never envisioned a month long absence.

Same with the refrigerators. In the fear of the moment, when it was pretty clear that Katrina was going to hit New Orleans, people loaded their car, hoped they could find gas (most of the gasoline in the City was gone by Saturday night--the storm hit on Monday), and headed in whatever direction they were told to go. Some had actual destinations, others, like a friend of ours who rode this monster out in his car at a rest stop with five other stranded people, did not. But they didn't expect to be gone for a month either. It certainly wouldn't have dawned on most of them to clean out their refrigerators before they left.

Although everyone knew a big storm was coming, most people thought it would blow some buildings down, certainly there would be massive roof damage, and yes, trees would be pulled out of the ground. All knew that anything not tied down could become a projectile. There would be a lot of rain and probably a little flooding. This was all basic living-in-hurricane-land knowledge. No one that I knew ever asked even hypothetically, "Do you think the levees will hold?" It wasn't something most of us were thinking about at all. The very idea that 80% of this City would be under water in some fashion wasn't considered.

The truth is that New Orleans would absolutely have sustained some damage from Katrina no matter what, but it was the murderous levee failures that caused the horrible devastation seen on TV sets around the world in those first days. Many of our residents still can't come home as they have no home to come to.

What everyone seems to forget is that once you evacuated, there were checkpoints to get through and timetables issued for when you could come back to your neighborhood. "You live where? Nope, can't go in." Fresh faced National Guardsmen manned the checkpoints, had weapons (although there is now some question as to whether or not these weapons actually had ammunition in them), and great big barricades barring entry to certain areas. We were lucky. We snuck back in. In some places it was well over 6 weeks before the water levels dropped. The power was knocked out citywide (it's still out in many areas of New Orleans) and the heat in late August in Louisiana is always extreme. August/September 2005 was not anomalous in that regard.

Evacuees stuck in Atlanta or Utah, be they renters or homeowners, were absolutely not thinking about the fact that they'd just stocked their refrigerators with ground beef for meatloaf. They were not thinking about the milk and the mayo. They started posting frantically about their family members, friends, neighbors. They checked shelter lists for the names of their cousins. Then as the realization hit them that they wouldn't be home in their three day worst case scenario, they started posting about their pets. "Two cats in house at ****. Can someone please go give them water? Is there anyone there that can help?" There were some ready to help, and they did, but in the end, many of these people found themselves unable to get back home for six weeks, two months or even longer. Many of their pets were lucky and wound up at makeshift shelters in Gonzales and Slidell where they were held as unadoptable until January 2006, giving the evacuees time to claim them.

About a week after the storm refrigerators became a topic of discussion. Most people by then, if they hadn't lost their home entirely or lost a relative to the water or evacuation chaos, had had time to think about the power being out and the heat being high. The refrigerators were being discussed with both dread and dark humor. As people started coming back into the City, the smell of those refrigerators seemed to permeate everything, no matter how well duct taped they were. Paper face masks with Vicks Vaporub smeared inside became a standard accessory. It was weeks before the refrigerators disappeared.

Yesterday someone told me that landlords are now thinking about including a clause in their rental leases requiring tenants to clean out their refrigerators before they evacuate because "the landlord shouldn't have to pay for a new refrigerator." Incredible. That in the wake of a disaster like this something as petty as a refrigerator would become a topic of discussion amazes me, but there you are. I have no idea if such a clause is legal, probably is if the paper is signed. What if the tenant doesn't clean it out? Probably a fee of some kind will be levied.

So with hurricane season about 90 days out, remember, if you're trying to evacuate in a hurry, forget things like your birth certificate or insurance papers. Clean out that fridge! In fact, clean it out if you decide to go on vacation for a weekend or a two week period. If the power goes out and the fridge is hopeless, you will be fined, even if a hurricane didn't cause the power outage.

And if you don't have a car and have to evacuate, please, get a housesitter for your cat. You know they won't let you take them on the evacuation bus. Housesitter already evacuated? Well, the rule should be no car-no pet. After all, you should have know better than to have gotten a pet when you live in a hurricane zone, especially since you knew the levees would break.

Oh you didn't know?

2 comments:

Leslie said...

This is an awesome post. Your response to the "I can't believe you left your pets" thing is great. I wouldn't have left my pet but then again, when I evacuated for Ivan in 2004, I was single with no kids and knew I'd be with my family who also had pets. Not everyone had the same luxury as I did.

I never ever thought about stuff in the fridge when evacuating except a bit of, "Oh crap, now all those groceries might go bad if the power goes out" for about five minutes and then on to the obsessive watching of The Weather Channel at wherever it was I evacuated to.

slate said...

Thanks, Leslie! "Luxury" is the right word. We also had the luxury of taking our guys with us, and now with the new evac plan, they are making arrangements for pets, but I still don't think that will be enough.

Obsessive watching of the Weather Channel. Ah yes, seems that was the occupation of the day!

Thanks for the comment! Hope you stop back again!