The Storm of the Century: A Veterinary Perspective on Hurricane Katrina
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2009
Elizabeth E. Hammond1, DVM; Roberto Aguilar2, DVM; Marsha Fernandez3, MA; Daniel Sosa4, DVM
1Lion Country Safari, Loxahatchee, FL, USA; 2New Zealand Wildlife Health Centre, Phoenix, AZ, USA; 3Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, LA, USA; 4Palm Beach Veterinary Specialists, West Palm Beach, FL, USA


Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans as a category 3 storm on August 29, 2005. In spite of the fact that the zoo was prepared for a storm of that intensity, the failure of the levees caused catastrophic flooding in the city. Members of the hurricane team cared for the animals at the Audubon Zoo without outside help for one week. Physical isolation, the inability to gather and receive information regarding the situation, and large-scale human tragedy made the zoo’s plight secondary to other rescue efforts. The zoo’s isolation, lack of specialized food supplies, and a lack of a long-term emergency plan complicated assistance efforts in the days and months following the storm flooding. A situation of normal activity was not achieved for months, and visitors were unable to return to the zoo for 3 months. A clear long-term plan may greatly assist zoos and veterinary staff if an emergency situation becomes prolonged past the immediate planned availability of resources.


On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of the city of New Orleans as a category 3 storm, with maximum wind speeds of 130 mph. In the wake of the storm the levees surrounding this city below sea level failed, flooding 80% of the urban area. Over a thousand of the city’s residents died, and water rose 6–10 feet in the lower-lying parts of the city. Thousands of people were stranded without food and water for five days or more. Metropolitan services such as power, water and sanitation ceased, and cell phone communication was limited. With only one large highway to enter or exit the city, New Orleans became isolated and inaccessible by land.

The Audubon Zoo implemented its hurricane protocol as the hurricane approached. This protocol guided employees to secure animals, documents, equipment, and buildings, among other things, to minimize losses in the event of severe wind and water damage to the zoo. As part of this protocol, a team of 14 various volunteer zoo employees (aka “hurricane team”) stayed at the zoo during and after the storm. Volunteer staff had been staying at the zoo during the threat of hurricanes since 1989, but 2005 was the first time the hurricane protocol had fully been implemented. The hurricane team stayed in the hurricane-proof reptile building and slept on cots in the visitor’s area. Important food and supplies were stored in this building, which also included an escape hatch in the roof. The hurricane procedures were updated yearly, including adaptations from lessons shared by staff from the Miami MetroZoo, which was damaged when Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 storm, devastated southern Florida in August 1992. In recent years, the hurricane protocol supplies included boats, life preservers and the storage of food and water in the upper parts of the reptile building in the event of severe flooding.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Audubon Zoo suffered severe tree destruction, downed fences and enclosures, and moderate building damage. However, unlike the rest of the city, the zoo did not flood because it is located on a ridge adjacent to the Mississippi River and is one of the highest parts of the city.

Although the zoo lost two young otters, a raccoon, and a flamingo during the storm, the rest of the animals fared well. There were no animal escapes or injuries. However, in the days following the storm when the city of New Orleans spiraled into chaos, it became clear that the short-term plan to care for the animals would quickly become inadequate.

Short-Term Plan and Challenges Faced

The hurricane team stayed at the zoo without outside help for one week. During this time, there was no electricity or running water. Limited power was available by using generators. Gas, food and water stores were only planned for five days without outside assistance and thus were quickly exhausted. In addition, the New Orleans Police Department commandeered gasoline to power more than 20 vehicles. As time went by, the safety of the staff and zoo animals was in question because there was a threat of looting. The hurricane team made every effort to avoid being visible to outsiders, including limiting the use of lights at night. Armed staff patrolled the perimeter fence of the zoo in shifts to ensure the safety of the people and animals.

After the hurricane, communication with those outside the hurricane zone was difficult. Cell phones were unreliable, although text messaging was possible. A satellite phone procured for the hurricane season did not work. There were three working phone lines in several areas around the zoo that enabled communication with those outside the hurricane zone. Additional phone lines were added for the next hurricane season. Also, changes were made to the cell phone service for future hurricane seasons. The hurricane team cell phone numbers are now changed to outside area codes so that they have a better chance of working. The cell phones also include text messaging, which worked reliably after Hurricane Katrina.

The members of the hurricane team were a diverse group, including veterinarians, curators, keepers, a horticulturist, and security guards. However, this group was given the task of caring for a collection of 1500 animals from a variety of mammalian, avian and herptile taxonomic groups. Simple things, such as knowing where animals were located, what their identification was and what they ate, were not always clear, especially for someone who normally would not have cared for the animals. Thus, an updated and accurate hard copy inventory for all animals and their diet needs is essential. A standard operating procedure for the animals should also be available in appropriate areas. This documentation is important for people who may be caring for animals that are not normally under their care and if animals must be evacuated to another facility. In addition, diet and medication information should be posted in the vicinity of the animals. If there is no electricity, it may be difficult or impossible to access electronic documents.

Because of the diverse animal collection with specialized diets, maintaining adequate nutrition for the animals became a major challenge. Food supplies for small amphibians that require crickets of a specific size exhausted quickly. Fresh fruit and vegetables were used within one week, and supplies of hay and grain dwindled.

Providing adequate water for the animals was a serious concern. Initial water stores for the megafauna, such as rhinoceros and elephants, only provided water for three days. With the warm ambient temperature these animals rapidly consumed this supply. Although there was potable water available in two large 800-gallon bladders on the ground, it was difficult and time-consuming to move large stores of water to different areas of the zoo. Future protocols call for securing larger amounts of water distributed around the zoo prior to the onset of the hurricane. Although battery-powered flashlights and headlamps were available, without electricity this lighting was inadequate when working around dangerous animals in dark hallways. In future protocols, more substantial emergency lighting through the use of generators is planned.

Prior to the storm, many animals were placed in temporary hurricane housing for safekeeping. However, the storm damaged pens, fences and habitats, which made it impossible to return the animals to their exhibits. Thus, these animals were kept in areas that were inadequate for long-term occupation as the hurricane team scrambled to secure their normal enclosures.

Aquatic animals can be challenging to maintain without water or electricity, as demonstrated by the devastating losses at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas despite back-up generators. Since their health is linked closely to water quality, a generator is necessary to keep their life-support system running. Back-up generators can fail, especially if they are needed for more than several days. The generator to power the sea lions’ water filtration system failed soon after the storm. The five animals were kept in their exhibit for approximately five days without active filtration. The water became uninhabitable for the sea lions. Thanks to the support of several local zoological facilities (Alexandria, Baton Rouge and Houston Zoos) and the Louisiana State University, the sea lions and otters were safely evacuated to holding facilities with appropriate habitats. In the future, it would be helpful to have a post-storm evacuation plan and supplies ready prior to the start of hurricane season.

Although birds may be slightly easier to maintain without electricity or water, avian species present their own challenges. The generator-run air-conditioning system failed in the indoor aviary at the Audubon Zoo. With the clear ceilings and warm ambient temperatures, the enclosure turned into a greenhouse. As a solution, small mesh-screened doors were constructed in order to open the aviary doors to the outside to allow air to circulate. Future plans include solar-powered fans to improve air circulation throughout holding facilities.

Two hornbills were housed in a temporary holding space that did not allow natural sunlight. They were unable to return to their normal exhibit due to extensive hurricane damage. Without electricity, these birds were in the dark 24 hours/day, and they would not eat. It was only after they were moved to an outdoor area that their appetite returned to normal. When designing holding facilities, providing natural sunlight should be considered to allow for the normal circadian rhythms of animals in the event of a power outage.

Zoo animal medical records posed a major challenge during the crisis and in the months following. Multiple copies of medical records were sent to a sister zoo in another state for safekeeping prior to the hurricane. However, access to these medical records was not possible for several months after the storm. The veterinary staff was unable to access computerized medical records for many months, and some paper records were incomplete. Thus, hard copies of medical records should be kept up to date and accessible prior to the hurricane season. This is especially important if an outside veterinarian provides relief veterinary care.

The members of the hurricane team were faced with personal challenges during the post-hurricane period. Many did not know the fate of their families, pets and houses. Rescuing fellow employees’ pets was a post-storm reality that had not been anticipated. Some employees were out of town prior to the hurricane, trapping pets in flooded homes. In addition, several hurricane team staff had left their pets in their homes thinking they would be able to return home after the storm. The Hurricane staff improvised to find a place for all of these rescued animals. Rescued cats, dogs and birds were housed in offices and bathrooms within the animal hospital and administration area. Flea control was applied to most of the rescued animals. However, one cat missed the topical flea treatment, and a coworker’s office was infested with fleas for months after the storm!

Rescuing employees’ pets was a necessity and done with pleasure. However, doing so exposed the rescuers to potentially hazardous conditions. The rescuers boated through dangerous neighborhoods and unsanitary water in order to find these animals. Also, caring for these pets took time away from providing for the Audubon Zoo’s animals.

Based on experiences with hurricane team members’ pets during Hurricane Katrina, a new strategy was implemented for the 2006 hurricane season. A veterinary clinic in Baton Rouge agreed to reserve kennel space for the hurricane team members’ animals. The veterinary staff at Audubon Zoo provided vaccinations and microchipping free of charge to all hurricane-staff pets prior to the start of the hurricane season. Transportation for these animals prior to a hurricane was coordinated. Although this plan did not need to be implemented during the 2006 hurricane season, it gave the Hurricane Staff peace of mind that their personal pets would be taken care of and allowed them to focus on the task at hand. In addition, by providing safe hurricane housing for pets, more zoo employees were willing to volunteer for the hurricane team.

Long-Term Plan in a City in Chaos

Zoo staff outside the hurricane zone quickly recognized the need to assist the hurricane team soon after the storm because it was impossible to establish when services, supplies and safety would be secured. Based on the knowledge that the hurricane team had limited gas, food and water supplies and the perceived threat of looting, the zoo’s staff outside the hurricane zone made a plea for specific assistance. Working at the military command post in Baton Rouge and through the Louisiana School of Veterinary Medicine, outside staff mobilized food and personnel reinforcements and organized the purchase and delivery of two dozen large (450 gallon) plastic water reservoirs for distribution throughout the zoo. Military rescue personnel donated the use of a large potable water pipe truck that could easily transport water around the zoo. Manual water delivery and re-supply was maintained for 25 days after the storm, until the safety of the city’s potable water was established for certain.

By the fifth day after the storm, limited communications, constant physical labor and concern over safety contributed to a sense of isolation and exhaustion in the 14 volunteer staff. A plan was devised outside the zoo to relieve fatigued staff. Two teams of employees outside the hurricane zone were created. The teams were devised so that a person with certain skills could be replaced by another without interrupting basic animal care and emergency procedures. These teams were rotated every two weeks. Veterinary staff from the Houston and Tulsa Zoos provided relief for the zoo’s veterinarians.

On day seven after the storm, the National Guard and special forces occupied Audubon Park adjacent to the zoo in a military bivouac that remained in place for months. Several hundred soldiers were based in the park to provide security and rescue services to New Orleans. In addition, they also provided supplies, in gas and water, and materials to the zoo. Soldiers volunteered to clear debris and repair fences at the zoo in their spare time. They were allowed to wander the zoo freely. Most military staff remained armed and alert after the storm.

One week after the storm, the outside zoo staff coordinated a convoy of food, water, and supplies. Donated materials came from the Houston and Alexandria Zoos. The police escorted a convoy of eight supply trucks with donated materials, veterinary supplies, specialized animal food, 50,000 gallons of water, and transport cages. Potable water and materials reached the zoo on the ninth day after the storm. Veterinary zoo staff secured animal transport cages so that the sea lions, otters, and other small animals could be trucked to other facilities for their safekeeping and in an effort to decrease the workload at the zoo. Unfortunately, the supply effort was hampered by a lack of clear designation of chain-of-command among outside staff and between outside staff and those in the hurricane zone. A chain-of-command both inside and outside the crisis zone should be established in the emergency protocol.

During the first 30 days after the storm injuries to several staff members occurred. Several minor accidents and one serious injury (hand crushed by a sliding gate) were treated by medics from the National Guard. There were no other available human medical services in the city. In addition, several hurricane team members’ supplies of medications ran out. In future hurricane protocols, Hurricane Staff are encouraged to ensure they have a 3-month supply of essential medications during the hurricane season.

Animal veterinary services in the post-storm city were non-existent. The zoo veterinarian was the only veterinarian within the city. Police officers and residents resorted to coming to the zoo for veterinary care for injured and sick pets. Staff pets as well as strays from the area (including rabbits and an ostrich) were brought to the zoo. In an effort to protect the zoo collection, these animals were maintained in separate/quarantine areas.


The Audubon Zoo’s hurricane plan was successful. It was a dynamic process and important lessons were learned along the way to improve the protocol for the future. However, there was a false assumption that a normal situation would be re-established within 1 week of the storm. Instead, the Audubon Zoo was closed to the public for 3 months, causing a severe financial strain. Almost 80% of the zoo staff was furloughed, leaving the remaining 20% to care for the same number of animals.

In addition, at least half of the staff lost their homes to flooding, and many more sustained significant damage to their properties. Thus, the employees were under great physical and emotional strain in the months after the hurricane. Post-storm counseling should be included in the recovery phase of any emergency protocol. In order to navigate the post-Katrina life, a shift of thinking was necessary: accepting that everything personally and professionally is changed forever.


Speaker Information
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Elizabeth E. Hammond, DVM
Lion Country Safari
Loxahatchee, FL, USA

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