By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY September 23, 2005 They went for the animals, they fell for the people.
When Glen Wild Animal Rescue founder Liz Keller and Town of Liberty Dog Control Officer Joanne Gerow were deployed to Hattiesburg, Miss., last week to help round up the four-legged victims of Hurricane Katrina, they prepared for the worst.
It wasnt enough.
Youre not seeing the pictures on TV, Keller said. It really does look like a war zone.
The smell is death, Gerow said. If youve ever been at the dump and smelled the garbage, multiply that by 100.
The women were sent to Hattiesburg at the request of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which called upon members of the Mayors Alliance for Animals in New York City to send anyone experienced in animal control down to the disaster zone.
Kellers Glen Wild shelter is a member of the alliance, and after signing herself up for the trip, she put the call out to other animal handlers in Sullivan County.
Gerow felt it was her duty to say yes.
How could I say no if my expertise was needed there? she asked.
Husband Kip took a week off to play Mr. Mom, and the mother of five packed up her horse trailer with tons of donations, picked up Keller and took off for the south.
The duo stopped for five hours at a Motel 6 in Wytheville, Va. for a quick shower and a nap, then got back on the road, stopping in Alabama when a tire blew out on the horse trailer.
They arrived in Mississippi to total chaos.
It was a circus, people, animals . . . there were four rednecks, I mean real Deliverance rednecks, Gerow recalled.
The men were looking for their beagles, dogs rescued by the HSUS, which rescue workers learned had been used for baiting pitbulls for dog fights.
The men were turned away, and the scene turned ugly, Gerow recalled.
That night she and Keller slept in the truck with one eye open in case they came back angry and armed to get their beagles.
Keller and Gerow soon moved on to Gautier, Miss., helping the members of the Gulf Coast SPCA at the Jackson County Animal Shelter.
Walking the streets, searching for the animals left behind by their owners, the women saw unimaginable horrors.
Gerow found a family sitting on the foundation of their home the retired couple told her nothing was left of their belongings.
Behind them, she said, was the peak of their house, all that was left of the building that housed their entire lives.
Homes not destroyed by the wind were hit by the water, which filled the buildings and ravaged the communities.
Where the houses still stood, residents pulled out appliances, furniture the detritus of human living that had been destroyed by the water and left them out on their lawns to be carted away by clean-up crews.
Its every single conceivable thing that you have in a home, Gerow said.
Walking down the street, she added, was like walking through a tunnel of debris.
At one point, the women were driving down the street in Biloxi, Miss., only to be directed to the opposite side a house had been moved by the storm off its foundation and dropped in the middle of the road.
Theres just so much destruction, Gerow said, shaking her head. When you see all this, you cant even begin to conceive how theyre going to clean it all up.
Its block after block, street after street, city after city.
And the stories of FEMAs failure to act quickly or thoroughly enough arent exaggerated, Gerow said.
I could tell you stories about FEMA that would make your head spin, she said.
Standing in a convenience store in Wiggins, Miss., Gerow watched families desperately searching for bags of ice to keep their food cold in the southern heat.
Outside the store were four tractor trailers filled with ice. Those trucks were being diverted by FEMA, Gerow said, because they were needed elsewhere.
In all the time Keller spent on the ground, she never saw one FEMA worker.
People were living in their cars, and wed be walking the streets looking for animals, and people were popping up out of their cars asking us, Keller recalled. There are signs on houses: FEMA, where are you?
That as an American upset me, she said, for people in our own country to be treated that way . . . its really unbelievable.
Keller saw through her work with the animals what it was like for the human beings who were suffering.
Elderly couples who had never asked for a penny in their life were reduced to begging at the shelters for food for their animals, she said.
Families that have had their pets for 11 years are being forced to give them up because its hard enough to find shelter for their own families.
A lot of people want their pets back, but they cant give anyone an idea of when theyll be able to take them back to their homes, Keller said.
And the shelter workers are doing the best they can. Theyve saved thousands of dogs, cats, horses and other animals who have been kept in the region for families to claim.
At one shelter, Keller said there are 1,000 dogs.
And theres more coming every day, she said.
There are happy stories, stories that made the trip worthwhile for both Keller and Gerow.
A brindle pitbull was held at the shelter for an extra day to be seen by a veterinarian for a minor injury.
That afternoon, after the dog missed his transportation to another shelter, his owners came in looking for their pup.
Keller remembered seeing a pitbull at the shelter, and she went looking for him, bringing him out to a crying mother and daughter for a joyful reunion.
If that injury didnt take place, the dog wouldnt have been there, Keller said. You see how things happen for a reason.
Gerow saw a woman sitting in a pickup truck looking distraught.
She asked her if she was OK, and the woman said, No.
But, she said, she was one of the lucky ones. She had a house, her family was OK.
Gerow went to the familys home, saw where it had been filled with water.
She met the womans 4-year-old daughter, Rae Rae, and gave her a unicorn shed purchased for her own daughter in Tennessee.
The simple gesture brightened up the little girls eyes, and Gerow made a lifelong friend.
The woman who shed first noticed is now like a sister.
It sounds crazy, but if a man and a woman can fall in love in a minute, two people can become friends in a minute, she said, showing off a picture of Rae Rae she now keeps in her living room a snapshot of a smiling toddler in her bright pink Spongebob bathing suit.
Rae Raes family and the other people the women met changed their lives.
I went for the animals, but the situation with the people is so sad, Keller said.
People need to swing into action, she said, they need to hook up with an individual municipality or a church in the area and find out just what is needed.
Gerow has the contact information for the Gulf Coast SPCA and for several churches in Mississippi.
We as a nation need to get small, she said. We need to work as a nation, but on small scales across the nation.
This is not a complicated thing, she said. FEMA chooses to make things complicated.
Gerow says people should take a page from the book of the Bernese Mountain Dog Club she belongs to club members got together while she was in Mississippi and arranged for adoptive families along Gerows route home.
She and Keller brought 35 cats and dogs with them on the trip north.
Just a mother and her puppies are left, and Gerow is keeping the mom.
The four babies, the offspring of a Yorkie/Poodle mother and a Jack Russell father, are up for adoption.
All have been given a clean bill of health from veterinarian Dr. Joseph Nebzydoski in Youngsville (who did their check-ups and shots free of charge as his donation to the relief effort), and are available from Gerow. For more information, call Gerow at 292-5949.
For information on helping the animals, call Glen Wild Animal Rescue at 434-7191. Checks can be sent to the Gulf Coast SPCA, P.O. Box 1664, Gautier, MS 39553.
Monetary donations or donations of new packaged t-shirts, underwear and socks of all sizes, blankets, multi-ethnic combs and hairbrushes, toothpaste and toothbrushes can be sent to the Abundance of Blessings Church, care of Maddy Thompson, 4031 Washington Blvd., Moss Point, MS 39563.
Donations can also be dropped at the Liberty Parks and Rec building on Main Street. The church will distribute the items to families in need, Gerow said.