Katrina Diaries: Saving Dogs in Biloxi
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
For the next couple of weeks, we're going to be doing some stories about some of the volunteers who've gone to help in the aftermath of Katrina. We're beginning today with Ron Weckbacher. He's a member of a national organization that trains dogs and sends them to search for and help recover victims and to locate bodies in times of disaster. More from reporter Gloria Hillard.
GLORIA HILLARD reporting:
In a welcome-home crowd waving homemade signs, flowers and small American flags, volunteer rescue worker Ron Weckbacher holds the leashes of Manny and Dawson. They are two almost look-alike white-and-black border collies, and the dogs have just been spotted by a small crowd of smiling children.
Mr. RON WECKBACHER: Hi, Isabella. Did you see Dawson? He likes little kids. Be careful, though. He's going to give you a big old smooch right in your face.
HILLARD: Ron Weckbacher is a 44-year-old financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, but on this day, he's wearing LA Fire Department-issued blue baseball cap, T-shirt, pants and heavy work boots. Weckbacher is a volunteer with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. In this role, he accompanied the LA Fire Department's task force to the Gulf Coast.
Mr. WECKBACHER: You can offer them a lot of hope and a lot of help, but just sad to see all that they had to go through.
HILLARD: He looks a little weary. One free hand is always resting on one of his dogs. Manny, still in his orange vest, is trained to find live bodies. Dawson, who has pale green eyes, has a tougher job; he's trained to find those who can no longer be helped.
Mr. WECKBACHER: He did so well. You would have been so proud of him. He kept searching and searching and searching. He did not stop. He got some cuts, got some punctures; it never fazed him.
HILLARD: A majority of FEMA-certified canine rescue teams in the hurricane-affected areas were trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. The non-profit organization relies on donations and dedicated volunteers who are partnered for this rescue work with dogs that have been rescued themselves from shelters and rescue organizations. For Weckbacher, it's been two weeks since he left home.
Mr. WECKBACHER: There's my boy! Give me a hug. Oh, I missed you so much. I know. You tell him, Dawson.
HILLARD: While away, he's been sleeping on the ground, sorrowful ground. So the question he's heard many times before...
Why do this?
Mr. WECKBACHER: You know, it's real simple. Everybody gives in their own way. This is just the way that I give.
HILLARD: Weckbacher, who has responded to a number of disasters--from 9/11 to mudslides to the flattened dreams of Biloxi, Mississippi--says they all have one thing in common, something that affects both victims and rescue workers: grief. Easing that grief is another part of the dogs' job.
Mr. WECKBACHER: They are my comfort, and I cannot tell you how many times people come up to me and say, `Can I pet your dog?' and they just love having that creature to be able to hold and to pet. It's very, very therapeutic for a lot of people.
HILLARD: In the morning, he'll return to his job at Morgan Stanley. His dogs will be with him. The three of them are ready to go where needed on an hour's notice. In the meantime, for now...
Mr. WECKBACHER: Everybody's going to grab a blanket, sit on the floor, hug each other, dogs included, and thank God for what we are blessed with.
(Soundbite of dog barking)
Mr. WECKBACHER: I hear you. I hear you.
HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles.
CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick, and DAY TO DAY has more just ahead.
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