When residents fled the city, many left their pets behind. Today, those animals and their offspring are roaming the streets in overwhelming numbers.
At around 1 p.m., Travis Causey is on his third call of the day. It's about 84 degrees and feels like 100 percent humidity. Even though the air conditioning is on full blast, the heat makes the seat of the Animal Control Officer's truck sticky. He eases into a parking lot in front of a small white house with a zig-zagged wheelchair ramp leading to the front porch in Gentilly, a neighborhood in New Orleans just north and across the river from the Lower Ninth Ward. Causey stops by to check on an abandoned and emaciated pitbull that had crawled into resident Christine Schexnayder's backyard to die.
Every bone on the brown and white pitbull is visible as the dog struggles to stand. A large grapefruit-sized tumor hangs just below its stomach in a loose pouch, without any muscle or fat to attach to. A cloud of fleas jumps off its bony body as Causey puts it in his truck. Schexnayder says the pitbull is one of a three-dog pack that someone recently dropped off in the parking lot in front of her house. The other two are just as close to death. There are always abandoned dogs in that lot, Schexnayder says. But Causey has a busy day and can't stay to look for the other two dogs. His next call, a dog bite victim, takes priority over looking for the other strays. He works late that day, as he does most days.
Story continues after slideshow (all photos by Wendi Jonassen)
Causey is a New Orleans native, and despite the city's problems, he can't imagine living anywhere else. The food isn't spicy enough elsewhere, he says. Occasionally he leaves the city to visit family in Texas--relatives who still live there after being evacuated just before Hurricane Katrina. Half the city didn't come back at all. Some didn't have anything to come back to and some just couldn't stomach the destruction.
Many residents left in a hurry when former Mayor Ray Nagin announced an emergency mandatory evacuation of the city at 10 a.m. on August 28, 2005. Outbound traffic clogged all lanes of the highways--on both sides of the median--for miles, for days. When people rushed out of the city, they left behind family heirlooms, pictures, and even their pets, thinking they would be back in a few days. The hurricane that hit New Orleans on August 29, however, breached 53 different levees, and the damage reached catastrophic levels. Residents weren't allowed back for three weeks, and then had to leave again, as another hurricane, Rita, threatened to breach the weakened levees that still stood.
The pets that didn't die in the storm were left to fend for themselves. In the end, over 600,000 animals were killed or stranded because of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, many houses that sustained 6 to 15 feet of water were uninhabitable after the storm and were abandoned. Hurricane Katrina didn't introduce stray dogs to New Orleans, but it certainly accelerated the problem. Today, much of the city looks as though it has not been touched since 2005, and the abandoned sections of New Orleans have been taken over by weeds, blight, and wild dogs.
The Lower Ninth Ward garnered most of the national attention after the floodwaters swept many houses off their foundations. Aside from a few new homes that Brad Pitt is building (which he seems to be styling after spaceships), much of the Lower Ninth Ward remains desolate, with nothing but scattered piles of old tires and weeds tall enough for an adult to disappear in. There wasn't much to return to in those neighborhoods. The Lower Ninth Ward lost 85 percent of its population.
But what most people don't know is that many of the houses and buildings in the rest of New Orleans--the Seventh Ward, Lakeview, Central City, the Upper Ninth Ward, New Orleans East--also sustained up to 15 feet of water, leaving them standing, but rendering them uninhabitable. Some residents returned to their homes in these neighborhoods, while their neighbors' homes are still vacant and deteriorating.
C.J. Fortune spends his afternoons sitting on his porch on St. Anthony Street, in the Seventh Ward, watching his neighbors walk past and greeting all of them. Soldiers escorted him out of the neighborhood during The Storm (which is how locals refer to Hurricane Katrina) and standing in front of a house where a hurricane evacuation plan is still posted, he raises his hand just above his belly to indicate what the water levels were. Chickens roam the streets in the Seventh Ward and opossums crawl into garbage cans. The house across the street from Fortune's, like many houses in New Orleans, still bears the infamous crosses that designate they were inspected for gas leaks, abandoned animals, dead dogs, or dead people. Just down the street, a two-story brick building that used to be a school still advertises a graduation ceremony that never happened in 2005 on its marquee, though some of the letters have fallen off.
All over the rest of the city, yellow flowers grow out of roofs and windows, engulfing houses with a bed of bright flora. The vines are appropriately called cat's claws because they grab onto houses and don't let go. The vivid colors match the décor of the brightly painted houses and almost fit into the design of New Orleans, except that they also instantaneously highlight blight and they are everywhere. On some blocks in New Orleans, more houses are being eaten by yellow than not.
Vacant houses, houses on stilts, and tall weeds in empty lots provide refuge for stray dogs. The animals have never been vaccinated, aren't eating safe food, and are exposed to an unknown variety of diseases, posing a health hazard if they approach children, the elderly, or anyone not expecting to see a wild dog. The dogs reproduce in the vacant homes and blighted lots, and since an adult dog can give birth to five to eight puppies twice a year, a fertile female stray exponentially adds to the population on the streets. Fortune often sees two stray dogs in the Seventh Ward, living in an abandoned blue house across the street, and one of them is pregnant. A different four-dog pack ran through his neighborhood a couple of months ago.
"The further we have gotten from Katrina, some of those stray problems have continued to grow," says Ana Zorilla, executive director of New Orleans SPCA, "and at this point, six, seven years later we are talking about significant numbers of strays." She attributes the stray problem to New Orleans' diminished population because without neighbors to report stray dogs, the animals can freely roam the streets, hide in empty houses and lots, and reproduce without anyone noticing or stopping them. "You have entire blocks of the cities where there is no one living," she says.No one but stray dogs.
The empty lots and vacant houses are also breeding grounds for crime. As of March of 2012, crime had risen by 10 percent since last year, with substantial increases in murders and rapes. The statistics show a two-year steady increase in serious crime. On May 8, 2011, a 17-year-old boy was shot and killed on a block where only two of the houses were occupied. No one saw the murder. The blight gives both neighbors and visitors the impression that no one cares about what happens, says Will Bowling, a blight and acquisition manager at the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative.