March 07, 2007
The Long Road Home
Katrina Rescue Dog Reunited With Kin
Miles away from home, there was a miracle.
Nineteen months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, wreaking destruction upon thousands, a man and his dog were reunited last week on the East End.
It was an emotional moment at The Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons in Wainscott as New Orleans resident Keith Donatto was able to see his dog again. Bear, a chowchow mix, was rescued and sent to the East End in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
Bear, who staff at ARF called "Sugar Ray," is one of 30 dogs and cats ARF rescued after Hurricane Katrina left thousands of animals stranded and homeless. Seven animals have been reunited with their owners, 18 have been adopted — and five dogs are waiting for homes.
Stroking Bear's lustrous black fur, Donatto was wreathed in smiles. "It's just the greatest joy," he said. "This is the missing link. The last member of our family has come home."
Describing Bear, Donatto said his dog is a picky eater who prefers prime rib bones and sleeping on a blanket in the carport. Born in the backyard, Bear is a "home dog" who always returned to the safety of the front porch after his runs through their New Orleans neighborhood. And the thing Bear hated, above all else, was riding in the car.
That's why, when Donatto and his family had to vacate New Orleans, they found it impossible to coax their canine friend into the car. At first, Donatto had no clue that the storm would be any worse than those he, his wife, Brenda, and his sons, Keith and Merlin, had weathered before.
"We've dodged hurricanes for years," he said. Whenever hurricane warnings sounded, the Donatto family would head to the Hotel Monteleone, where Donatto is employed, to seek refuge. But although they were able to shepherd their tiny Shihtzu, Missy, into their vehicle, Bear refused to budge
"We thought we'd be home in a day and a half and Bear would be on the porch, waiting."
Little did they know they'd be hit hard by the worst horror the Big Easy had ever encountered.
With over 12 feet of water sweeping through the streets of Gentilly, Donatto's neighborhood, the family was forced to relocate 189 miles north, to Pineville, Louisiana. Donatto was not able to return home until a month later, where he found Bear waiting. "There was a big wooden storage shed," said Donatto, that he thinks Bear perched upon until waters receded and it was safe to hide under the house.
Donatto fed Bear and gave him water. But, when he came back three days later, Bear was gone. Markings on the side of his home indicated that Bear had been rescued, taken to a temporary shelter in Tylertown, Mississippi. Months later, when Donatto went to collect his pet, Bear had been moved again.
Donnato admitted in the long list of worries, finding Bear was one of a myriad of fears. Donatto did not know if he still had a job. "Banks were underwater." The first time he came back, there was no sign of life. Trees and power lines were down. Automobiles were turned over.
When Donatto saw his house, it appeared fine — from the outside. "It was like living a Alfred Hitchcock movie. Inside, it was almost like a bomb had exploded. I had to pry my way though the front door because my living room set had floated to my front door. Without knowing this was your home, it was unrecognizable inside."
Years of treasured family photos and possessions were gone. What floodwaters didn't ruin, mold ravaged.
And for the pets left behind, a nightmare unfolded: Animals, trapped on rooftops, were blinded by the intense sun reflecting off the water. Others died of cardiac arrest.
After 10 months, Donatto, a native of New Orleans, brought his family home. Although Donatto knew Bear had been rescued, he didn't know where to find him. And, with his phone out of service, efforts at a reunion were virtually impossible. It wasn't until the staff at ARF called Donatto last month, right before Mardi Gras, that a joyous ending was written to his story.
Speaking of his experience, Donatto said life has returned, slowly, to New Orleans. "We've come a long way," he said. "We still have a long way to go."
Crucial to redevelopment, he said, are affordable housing, education, and health care. Many are forced to shoulder staggering expenses of rented apartments on top of mortgage payments. And, with monies from the Federal Road Home Program slow to arrive in hand, many are frustrated.
But in the face of despair, there is hope. When they moved back, said Donatto, the landscape was brown. "Finally, I had some weeds and I went out to cut them. My wife said, 'No, let them grow. It's good to see something green growing."
And that is perhaps the biggest lesson: "There's an old saying: 'You never miss the water until the well runs dry. Before Hurricane Katrina, you never looked at certain things in life as being that important — kids running up and down the street. Seeing the birds fly, the squirrels coming back. Grass that you often complained about having to cut — I've got grass now."
Faith has played a strong part in Donatto's conviction, even after being forced to apply for unemployment and food stamps after a lifetime of providing for his family.
"You accumulate all of these material things and one day it's all gone. What I value now is my family, my friends, and life."
And his dog, Bear. "There's a brand of playing cards that have two dogs on the box. The caption says, 'There's a tie that binds us to our home,'" said Donatto. "Bear is home again and it's good to have him back."