Volunteers from Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Recovery arrived in New Orleans this week with a dozen therapy dogs and have been making the rounds at FEMA disaster recovery centers.
NEW ORLEANS Now New Orleans has really gone to the dogs.
A group of pet owners from Virginia and New York has brought their "therapy" dogs to the storm-stricken city to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring Christmas cheer to stressed-out victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Volunteers from Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Recovery arrived in New Orleans this week with a dozen dogs and have been making the rounds at FEMA disaster recovery centers where aid seekers and relief workers are welcome to pet the pups and take their mind off the gloom and doom wrought by the killer storm.
"People open up to you when you have a dog. They'll come over, pet the dog, then tell us about their own pets that they may have had, or still have, or that they may have lost in the storm," said Hope spokeswoman Dawn Eischen.
"We've heard a lot of different stories from people, and some have been really hard to hear."
The storm killed 1,228 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and leveled entire neighborhoods.
Maria Carollo of the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette and her family had to evacuate their home when Katrina flooded it with three feet of water when it struck on Aug. 29, and now they're squeezed into a FEMA-provided trailer.
On a visit Thursday to a FEMA center in St. Bernard Parish, she stopped to pet two of the therapy dogs.
"You're frustrated, but they're able to comfort you," Carollo said while stroking Ginger, an eight-year-old whippet mixed breed, and Custer, a six-year-old golden retriever.
The dogs, she said, reminded her how lucky she had been to escape with her husband, children and their pets - a cockatiel and two dogs.
Katrina's fury disrupted their lives and badly damaged their home, but "you didn't lose your animals, you didn't lose your family," she said.
Eischen said the dogs, who wear vests with their names on them, train by making frequent visits to hospitals and nursing homes. Those with the best dispositions and ability to handle crowds become crisis response dogs, she said.