Katrina deployment update 9/16/05
We are happy and grateful to report that the following SDF search teams have safely returned home from their deployment to the Gulf States—from California (Bay Area, Sacramento, and Santa Barbara/Ventura), Florida (Coral Gables, Miami Springs, Temple Terrace), and Ohio (Bellbrook).
We send our best wishes for a safe return to the California teams scheduled to demobilize next week from Kern, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties.
Listen to a live interview with SDF handler Ron Weckbacher on National Public Radio upon his return from Biloxi, Mississippi.
The Role of The Search Dogs
26 SDF canine disaster search teams were deployed to Gulfport, Biloxi and New Orleans to assist in the rescue efforts. Each of our teams is part of a Task Force of 28 to 80 people divided into these areas of expertise: Medical, Rescue, Hazardous Materials, Logistics, Plans, and Search. Each Search component includes 4 canine teams.
The task of our canine teams has varied according to the assignment given to their Task Force during the Hurricane deployment. Primarily the dogs are being used to search for survivors in “voids” of the wreckage where a human could survive. They conduct “perimeter” searches around designated areas to determine whether rescue workers should explore that area, exploring partially collapsed structures that can’t support the weight of a rescue worker loaded with gear. They investigate houses that are locked up, letting rescue squads know if they need to gain entrance.
As in former deployments (Oklahoma bombing, the World Trade Center Attack, and earthquakes, mudslides and building collapses) the dogs bring great comfort, a sense of normalcy and a feeling of connection and hope, both to traumatized families and to weary rescue workers.
In their own words
Marshia Hall & Trapper, Temple Terrace Fire
I was deployed with my dogs Trapper and Shade as part of Central Florida Task Force 4 on Tuesday, August 30th. For the most part we were searching residential subdivisions in Pascagoula and Gautier near Biloxi, and in Biloxi itself. It was a river of debris. You couldn’t tell where one house began and another ended. There were eight to ten houses smashed together in some areas, with debris piles the length of a city block.
We worked 12-hour shifts, stopping often to rest the dogs. We were going into homes and cars that were partially collapsed—where there was a chance people had survived. The debris was piled so high the humans couldn’t penetrate it, but the dogs could go subterranean very quickly. They could also go in very small spaces it would have taken us ages to access.
There was a real risk posed by contaminated water. Again, this is where SDF’s training paid off, as the dogs are trained not to touch any water or food they find at a search site. As soon as we see signs of stress, overheating or thirst, we rein them in. We check them constantly, watching their hydration, checking eyes, ears and pads, and looking out for allergic reactions. We carry antibiotics with us, as well as other medications and bandages, and are able to treat any wounds immediately.
I was called out to four other hurricanes last year, but you never get used to this. I was most deeply affected by the look on people’s faces as the realization of what had happened slowly took over. I was so grateful that the dogs were at such a high skill level, thanks to the training they received from the Search Dog Foundation. I felt so good knowing that we were able to assure the families that none of their surviving loved ones had been left behind.
Rick Lee & Ana, Sacramento City Fire
I was totally unprepared for what I saw. Houses filled up like washing machines, with all contents tossed around. Add to that the debris propelled in from miles away. Incredibly heavy semi trucks lifted up and plummeted down. A four-story casino, a floating barge, lifted up, hurled around and dropped in little pieces.
The humidity was unbearable. The dogs started panting the moment they left their air-conditioned vans to begin their 12-hour days. There was no shade to be found anywhere even under the trees, as all the leaves had been blown away. The dogs had to be pre-hydrated before their day began, and hydrated and bathed throughout the day. It was a tough climb through the loose rubble but because of the great training they have, they never gave up.
There was one happy ending. Each day while the Task Forces were in the staging area, a local husband and wife came by to offer free refreshments from the snow cone cart that had once been their business. They had lost everything, but they still had their cart and they wanted to bring some relief to the Task Force teams. As it turns out, the wife is a nurse. One of the Task Force members’ wives is also a nurse in Sacramento. She was able to secure a job for their new-found friend. They’re now on their way to Sacramento and a new life.
Steve Pendergrass & Marc, Kern County Fire
After we cleared the St. Bernard parish, we were sent into other parts of eastern New Orleans which were dry enough to search. We generally leave between 5:00 and 5:30 in the morning and get to bed about midnight. We sleep in pop-up tents and the dogs sleep in their kennels in air tents. My dog Marc developed sore muscles and some bruising from crawling over the rubble, but there are many local veterinarians volunteering their time to provide medical care for the search dogs, so they are being well cared for. I’m amazed at the amount of searching the dogs have been able to do. Marc is covering miles each day, working extraordinary hours, always coming back for more, giving 110%. The vets are checking the dogs "like crazy" to make sure they're hydrated and are monitoring them for any problems.
Yesterday we helped rescue a 74-year-old man who was found unconscious and emaciated. The commanding officer for the National Guard team ordered his men to break into the house, where they found the man and a pit bull puppy still alive. The man suffered from dehydration and, according to medical personnel, had only about 24 hours to live if he hadn’t been discovered. This rescue served as a tremendous morale booster for everyone involved.
The handlers were told to take today off to get some rest. Task Force members have been in good spirits, and after a day off we’re in great spirits and are ready to get back on the job!
Jeff Place & Zack, Fremont Fire
Zack and I were deployed on August 31 to Biloxi—starting at the coast and working our way inland. We searched 20 square miles of homes and businesses, an area completely destroyed by the storm surge. The dogs did really well under some very harsh conditions. They’re taught to alert only on live finds, but Zack reacted each time we came across the scent of a dead body and we were able to either get a cadaver dog in there to confirm the find or try and retrieve the body ourselves.
The harsh conditions were exacerbated by the extreme heat (temperatures were as high as 105o with 92% humidity). The search dog teams could only work for about an hour and a half before taking a break to rest and hydrate the dogs. The dogs were a big help because they can search an area much faster than humans can. We could clear the areas we were assigned to search knowing that we hadn’t left behind anyone trapped or buried under debris.
Athena Robbins & Gator, Bellbrook Fire
Ohio Task Force One drove in a convoy of three box trucks, five pickup trucks, one command vehicle and a K-9 van heading south towards Meridian, Mississippi. Upon arrival in Meridian, team members took refuge in military barracks to await the storm. Wind and rain whipped through the military base, uprooting trees and downing power lines overnight Monday, August 29th.
Gator and the other OHTF-1 canines searched structures and debris piles in Long Beach, Pass Christian and Gulfport, Mississippi. The dogs climbed rubble piles 13 and 14 feet high searching for possible live victims. Refrigerators and their contents were everywhere but, thanks to their training, not one dog showed interest in the food scattered amidst the debris or the other animals around.
The canines did an incredible job, searching 500 structures and debris piles. To keep the dogs on task and happy, team members hid in the rubble for the dogs to find and they were rewarded with toys and playtime. Throughout the search these incredible dogs never missed a beat.
Marc Valentine & Val, Montebello Fire
We leave at 7 a.m. and take the ferry across the Mississippi to the fingers of the Bayou south of New Orleans, and search until 5:30 p.m. The water has receded enough now
to allow us to go into every neighborhood to find people who want to get out. Initially these people didn’t want to leave their homes, but after 12 days bedded down in their attics, most are giving up, and asking to be relocated. Many of them are sick or injured. The dogs quickly hone in on the houses where there are still people alive, allowing us to cover a large area quickly.
The presence of the dogs has encouraged people to come out who don't want to leave their homes because they fear leaving their pets behind. Seeing the rescue workers with dogs gives them confidence that we care about animals, and they're then willing to be evacuated.
The dogs also bring comfort to the rescue workers. Many of the rescuers come over to our tents in the afternoons, asking if they can pet and play with the dogs. There was one guy who was deathly afraid of dogs before. Now he's coming over to the tent every day. They come for the connection to home the dogs give them. They start petting the dogs, playing around with them, and suddenly they're talking about home.
We're missing our lives, our families back home. I missed my wedding anniversary last week, and my son's third birthday today. Having my dog Val here is my connection to home out here in the middle of nowhere. What do we need out here? More Search Dogs!