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Hurricane Katrina evacuee is sheltered in Sebago

October 20, 2005

Arden Stitzell usually lives in the French Quarter in New Orleans where she works and also attends Tulane University. Her life changed abruptly when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. She was out of town at the time and has been unable to return home since then. Her car still sits at the New Orleans airport parking garage. She has come back home and is staying with her parents on Hancock Pond Road in Sebago.

When she left New Orleans she left her two cats at her apartment where a neighbor, Keith Wagner, was looking after them. Everything changed when Katrina hit. Although the French Quarter was spared from the widespread flooding that affected other parts of the city, Wagner was unable to leave the city. He cared for Stitzell’s two cats as well as other neighborhood pet owners, and was caring for several cats, dogs, birds and even a goat.

Arden Stitzell at her parent’s home on
Hancock Pond in Sebago, with her cats Loki (l)
and Mr. Pete.
Photo by Allen Crabtree

“He was running out of food and water and walked to the Convention Center in New Orleans for help, but all they could give him was a small bottle of water,” Stitzell said. “He kept getting conflicting instructions from the police. He was first told that he couldn’t leave the city, and then was ordered to evacuate. The instructions went back and forth several times before he was ordered to leave or he would be shot!”

Stitzell was able to keep in touch with Wagner by phone and spent her days glued to the television for the news coming out of New Orleans. When Wagner was finally able to leave the city he took her two cats north across Lake Pontchartrain by the causeway to Covington, a city on the north shore of the lake. He was attempting to reach his sister’s home there, and Wagner was able to drive within five miles of Covington before the road was blocked by fallen trees. “He walked those last five miles carrying my two cats,” she said. “It was terribly hot, and when he finally reached a Red Cross shelter in Covington he collapsed.”

There he was given first aid by the Red Cross nurses and then taken to the hospital for treatment of dehydration. The Covington Police took the two cats to the house of Wagner’s sister, Nancy Wagner. Covington was spared the major damage that Katrina caused further east toward Mississippi, but the hurricane had downed trees, knocked out power and many homes were damaged. Except for damage from falling trees, Nancy Wagner’s home was largely spared and she was able to provide a safe haven for Stitzell’s cats.

“I flew into Baton Rouge on Thursday, September 8 and rented a car,” Stitzell recounted. “From there I drove to Covington and picked up my cats. When I was there limited power had been restored and we had two hours of electricity that night. I flew back to Maine the next day.”

“I don’t know what I would have done without Keith. He was a life-saver and I will never forget him. He is really a hero for what he did.”

Stitzell’s two cats have survived their new ordeal well, but this is not the first trauma that they have experienced. Loki is a 16 year-old male Maine Coon cat that Stitzell rescued from the Kennebunk animal shelter about 5 years ago. Mr. Pete is a 9 year-old orange Siamese mix that was a stray in Kennebunkport that came to live with Stitzell about 7 years ago. They have adapted well to their new home and are content to sit in the sun on the porch of the Stitzell’s home on the shore of Hancock Pond.

“Arden, I’m standing on your front stoop and everything looks fine,” I said. I was in New Orleans on a story assignment with the Red Cross on September 27 and had looked up Stitzell’s apartment in the French Quarter. I called her on the phone. “There doesn’t look like there was any flooding here and only a small amount of roof damage on the buildings in the Quarter. The light over the door is on, so you’ve got power as well!”

Hurricane Rita had postponed plans to allow residents to re-enter the French Quarter, and when I was there it had not been opened to returning residents yet. It was like a ghost town. There was no traffic, and we saw very few people there. When my photographer and I returned to New Orleans for another story on October 1, people were being allowed back in to several areas including the French Quarter. I stopped by Stitzell’s apartment and called her again. There were signs of life - a notice was taped to the door authorizing roof repairs and a mattress was at the curb.

“Ring the door bell,” she told me. “My landlord is back and has been cleaning things up. He might be there.”

Arden Stitzell’s first floor apartment in the
French Quarter
Photo by Allen Crabtree

Her landlord answered the bell and I gave the phone to him so that he could talk with Stitzell. He gave me a tour of her apartment at the same time. “I’ve cleaned out your refrigerator, there was a little water damage from leaks in the roof, and I’ve had to throw out your mattress because it was getting mold on it. Everything else is in pretty good shape. You’re very lucky, and should be able to come back without much problem.”

I unloaded a case of drinking water from my car and left it in her refrigerator along with some MRE’s. People are advised not to drink the city water, and there are only a few restaurants and food stores open. “At least you won’t go hungry when you come back home,” I told Stitzell. “Do you like MREs?”

She is planning on returning to New Orleans in the very near future to try and pick up her life there again. Her job as a bartender is waiting for her, and Tulane University has announced that they will reopen in January for classes so she can resume her studies. One of the first things she is going to do is to look up Wagner and take him out to dinner - if she can find a place open.

In the meantime, she will leave her two cats in Sebago with her mother and father. It is going to be a very long time before New Orleans is restored to what it was before Katrina, and her cats have been through enough adventures in their lives already.

This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on October 20, 2005 under the title "Cats rescued from New Orleans".

Last updated December 29, 2005

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree