Refuge of last resort

Before my most recent visit to the Superdome amidst One Direction 12-year-old girl teenybopper hullabaloo, the last time I had been there was in the days after Katrina.
Three days after the weary mass of humanity moved out of the Superdome, their refuge of last resort, I was in New Orleans reporting on the deserted city. On that day, the city was a ghost town, and the stinky, broke-down Superdome felt like the ghosts had come to stay.
It wasn’t totally surrounded by water, but the water was still standing on its French Quarter side. With special permission we gave ourselves, we drove right up one of its ramps and met a few others on an external elevated walkway. The stench was overwhelming.
Soldiers were patrolling the massive perimeter. They walked in groups of three, carrying big guns. Like the hands of a clock, they made their way round and round the scarred face of the Superdome. One of the soldier trios had a very distinguishing addition.
A little dog, probably a schnauzer, was marching alongside the soldier in the middle. In a landscape so devoid of life and joy, that little dog was the most startling thing I saw that day.
He was perky. He pranced like a little dog that had been loved so much that he had no real sense of his place in this world.
He alone was hopeful.
I couldn’t help but smile each time that dog and his soldiers marched past. For a week, along with so many others, I had taken in more gruesome stories, sights and haggard faces than I could absorb. Each time the little dog paraded past, for a few seconds, I was able to forget the horrors so many had endured.
Our scraggly group of journalists and aid workers stood conversing, most of us bordering on shellshock. When the soldiers rounded the Dome again, I walked away from our group to speak with them.
They were just back from Iraq and also in a near state of shock. They couldn’t believe they had come home from a war zone and were dealing with a disaster the scale of Katrina.
I asked about the dog.
One soldier said the little dog wouldn’t leave his side. We agreed that the pup had been loved fiercely. We stood in silence, looking at the dog, carefully avoiding any discussion of the awful scene that surely occurred when its human was forced to leave the dog behind at the Superdome.
We all knew someone somewhere was lamenting that dog.
With the soldier’s blessing, I decided to bring the dog home to my daughters. I walked back to the group I was traveling with and told them what I was going to do. One of the people with me, who had spent more time in the Superdome than anyone should have, told me that in good conscience he just couldn’t recommend my taking that dog back to my family. He was worried that the dog might be carrying something that could harm the health of my kids. I understood his concern and wasn’t driving the car. I caved without a fight.
Against my better judgment, I walked away from that puppy. He was blissfully unaware of the direction his life almost took and kept prancing right along with his favorite soldier.
There are so many scenes from Katrina that haunt me still:
There’s the lady I greeted as she got off a bus at the Cajundome. Her face was burned badly, but she didn’t have a clue how it had gotten burned. She had spent three days in her attic and finally busted through her roof. In the chaos, she lost her glasses.
There was another woman at the Cajundome, who had given birth in New Orleans the day Katrina hit. When the hospital was evacuated, the administration failed to tell her where they were taking her baby. With the help of others, we finally found him. She had been looking for three days.
And there were the horrors I’d rather not describe that I saw along Airline Highway as I rode in a boat through Holly Grove with a stranger holding a gun in the air.
Of all the Katrina memories I have, that little dog is the easiest to remember and smile. Through the nine years since, that little dog’s hope has stayed with me. I believe someone rescued him and regret that someone wasn’t me. The remorse I feel about not rescuing him stays with me.
I will never reconcile that regret, and anyone who lived through or witnessed Katrina knows that regret is about a lot more than a dog. My inability to save that puppy is a scratch in the surface of the ways we, as a society, failed.
Every time I see the Superdome, my regret, wrapped up in the package of that dog, catches my heart.
After experiencing 60,000-plus screaming fans inside the Dome hanging on Harry and the rest of his One Direction friends’ every note, Piper, my 12-year-old daughter has a whole different set of feelings related to the Superdome.
As a mother, I pray that all of her and her generation’s Superdomes be filled with music, and may they never regret tiny dogs they were unable to rescue.

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