You may have seen the SOS she painted on her rooftop on one of the TV cable news outlets. “One big dog, two cats, one person. Please bring help.”
Robin’s friend, Ruby
Robin Case was so busy working, she wasn’t paying attention to the media, and didn’t realize Katrina had morphed from the Category One storm which had hit Florida several days before into a Category Four or Five. It was only about two days before the hurricane was to land in New Orleans when Robin, an artist, happened to visit a local hardware store and saw a crowd of people standing around a TV set.
That’s when Case learned about the emergency evacuation. But where would she evacuate to? Her car didn’t have much gas, and she had little money. Besides, she couldn’t find a hotel or motel out of town at this late stage that would allow pets. “I wasn’t going anywhere unless I knew I had somewhere to take my family,” she says.
Case’s mother lives outside Kansas City, and her daughter in New York City. The family she’s referring to are her two 15-year old cats, Lexa and Luna, and Ruby, her 8½-year old Rottweiler.
“If I had small children, I’d have a responsibility to get them out first,” says Case. “But I wasn’t going to leave my animals to someone else, or worse, leave them behind. I can assure you I wasn’t the only one who made decisions based on what we could do with our animals. It’s not only that I believe I have a responsibility to care them; in their own ways they care for me too. They may need me. But, also, I need them.”
Case continues, “Since most people have a pet, I’m not sure why more alternatives aren’t thought about for (evacuating) people with pets. But then, in New Orleans there weren’t a lot of options for anyone. If you didn’t get out early – for whatever reason ” we were told there was only one place to go, the Superdome.” The Superdome didn’t accept animals. As the Superdome began to fill up, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told people to evacuate to the Convention Center. But Case wasn’t even aware of that option, which probably turned out to be a good thing given the adversity reported widely in the media of those sheltering at the Convention Center.
So, she hunkered down with Lexa, Luna, Ruby and as many supplies as she could gather at a client’s home. The home was on higher ground than her apartment.
Case says that in her location Katrina wasn’t a house-rattling storm, though some shingles were lost and a window broke. The power went out, and soon the street began to fill with water. But the water only lapped at the doorstep. In fact, the backyard was dry enough for Ruby to do her business. What she wasn’t aware of was that the entire neighborhood surrounding her was under 12 to 16-feet of water. And the levee behind the house was about to give way.
“I thought the water would immediately recede, and that the power would return,” she says. The nearby neighbors previously evacuated; there was no one to speak with; she simply had no way to know the extent of the damage.
As helicopters increasingly flew overhead, she decided what’s going on must be serious. She took her paint brush and made her way up to the roof using a swimming ladder and created her most important painting ever, the rooftop SOS. Maybe it was that her roof top art work made coast to coast TV, or that the National Guard spotted it ” Tuesday she heard a knock on the door. But it turned out the little rescue boat that had appeared wasn’t large enough for 90-lb. Ruby. Case was firm, and told the National Guard rescuer that she’s not budging without the dog.
Several soldiers returned with a larger airboat a few hours later. At first Ruby didn’t seem to appreciate the rescuers. For one thing, this Rottweiler wasn’t going to accept strangers barking orders at her. Case told the soldiers, “Shine the flashlight on your face, not into the dog’s face, and talk quietly telling her what a good little girl she is.”
“Yes mam.” They did it. And Ruby responded, quickly calming down; once she realized they weren’t there to do harm.
So, the big dog, two cats and one person were taken to a large group of perhaps 100 or so people milling about on the highway. Again, Case made it abundantly clear that relinquishing her animals wasn’t an option. More than half the people waiting with her had animals. Case says many were like her, in at least part, staying behind because there was nowhere to evacuate with pets. Case realizes the result is that lives could be endangered, including the lives of emergency responders.
After waiting about six hours on the scorching hot pavement, buses arrived. After being assured they would all be taken to a shelter that allowed animals, as they boarded the bus, the group was told, “Be prepared when you get there to give up your animals.”
“I flipped,” she says. “People were crying, screaming. It didn’t seem to matter that we all lost everything we owned. I mean I know where my apartment was. And I realized everything, my art studio, everything must be gone. But I wasn’t going to even consider letting go of my animals, not for a second.”
It turned the destination shelter in Houma, LA allowed, even welcomed, pets. “The animals were behaved and so were the people,” says Case. “The shelter was clean, it was civil,” she says. “(At shelters) where pets weren’t allowed, apparently it wasn’t always so civil. I believe the pets helped to calm people (at the shelter), their gift to us is that they can help us when we most need emotional support.”
The next morning Case was able to snare one of the last remaining rental cars, and drove her family members with four legs to her mother’s home.
“They must have known that there would be thousands who would stay in the city, and just would not have the means to evacuate” says Case. “If they were worried so much ” and they should have been worried with a Class 4 or 5 hurricane “why didn’t they provide transportation out, and shelter before the storm? Or is that too sensible a question?”
As for her own future, Case pauses and says, “I loved my home. I loved my life. But now it’s time to start a new life. At least I feel I’m not alone. Ruby licks my tears, and then finds a way to make me smile. I hope I can begin to smile more.”