The massive movement of volunteers from all over the country to assist with animal rescues in the hurricane stricken region was remarkable. No one balked at wading in toxic gunk or working from before dawn to way past dusk to save lives. Some members from our own PAWS family dropped everything and headed south to help.
In the days and weeks following Katrina, the media brought us countless tales of displaced families and pets. But another, largely untold story was also unfolding—that of the region’s devastated wildlife. Former PAWS staff member and volunteer Monte Merrick, who recently worked with Houston-based Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education, shares his personal account of wildlife rescue in Louisiana.
“Our team worked the coast out of Houma, a small town about an hour from New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina damaged as many as 150 offshore platforms. Levees broke not just in New Orleans, but all through the delta and its bayous. Storage tanks holding as much as two million gallons of oil were utterly washed away. Well over seven million gallons of oil were reported spilled, probably more.
Here the levee had broken and taken a pipeline with it. What had been the town of Nairn flooded with fouled water and the marsh outside the levee flooded with oil. The day before a Brown Pelican had been rescued covered in crude oil and sewage, unable to fly. This day we discovered over forty dead birds, coated in oil. Mostly Clapper Rails and King Rails, but also Great and Little Blue Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, a Mottled Duck.
We searched Nairn’s small streets in an air boat—water still high one month after the storm and every single house destroyed. We saw only four birds in a few square miles of newly formed bayou: a Great Blue Heron, a Double Crested Cormorant and two Kingfishers.
The morning of October first we released the Brown Pelican on a beach near Grande Isle. Much storm debris had been removed and Rita cleared out the rest. It was windy and hot with a choppy two-foot surf, high for this part of the coast.
The pelican hopped out of his carrier, spread his seven-foot wings and sailed out over the waves. He landed past the break and bathed in the salty gulf. Two more Brown Pelicans flew over and circled, hovering above him in the wind. He rose to join them, and the new trio flew off to the east. In my binoculars I could see many pelicans—three, and then five and then thirty—he could have been any of these. And in the near background and as far as the limits of these lenses, I saw oil platforms and rigs and the many boats that serve them, more than I cared to count.”