Fun with Frances: Tales from an Emergency Pet Shelter

by Christina Medvescek on Mon, 2004-11-01 07:00
Kathy and Paul Ball

Kathy and Paul Ball drove to Florida on Sunday, Aug. 29, with nary a thought about hurricanes. At the last minute they decided to bring Kathy’s manual wheelchair, which she recently had begun using for long distances and which would come in handy at the hospital where her father was having heart surgery.

Little did they know that before the trip was over, Kathy would spend long sweaty, smelly, scary hours sitting in that chair, trapped by Hurricane Frances in an emergency pet shelter with an odd collection of people and critters.

’Oh my gosh!’

Kathy Ball, 55, of Taylor Mill, Ky., is a self-described “90-mile-an-hour” kind of person. She’s had ALS symptoms for two years, including cramping, leg weakness and speech/breathing issues, and is seen at MDA’s clinic at the University of Cincinnati.

Ball’s parents, Donald and Virginia Newburn, live in Edgewater, Fla. In mid-November, the Newburns successfully rode out Hurricane Charley in their manufactured home, but her father’s heart trouble was aggravated by the stress. Two weeks later, doctors ordered immediate heart surgery. Kathy and Paul rushed down to be by his side.

On Thursday night, when her father was recovering well in intensive care, police with bullhorns rolled down the Newburns’ street announcing a mandatory evacuation.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there really is something to this hurricane thing,’” Ball says.

Her father could safely stay in the hospital, but the rest of the family — Kathy, Paul, Virginia and Kathy’s sister, Joann Davis of Atlanta — had to go to a shelter.

Although a special needs shelter was available for wheelchair users, it wouldn’t accept her mother’s beloved cats, Dudley and Tigger. The nearest pet-friendly shelter was 32 miles away at the Volusia County Fairgrounds.

Packing up snacks, water, bedding, lawn chairs, cat food, “and half of everything Mom owns,” the group set out for the fairgrounds early Friday. It was a gorgeous day. They wouldn’t change clothes again until Monday night.

The wait

At the huge fairgrounds exhibition hall, humans and pets (which had to be caged at all times) were assigned back-to-back 5x7-foot plots. Because of Ball’s wheelchair, her group was given two plots.

She was pleased to find the building wheelchair accessible, but the air conditioning was freezing. “I thought, gee, can they turn it down a little? Little did I know…”

Saturday dawned bright, beautiful and bone dry. After spending a cold, sleepless night listening to barking and mewing, Ball was ready for some fun.

“I don’t sit around well,” she explains. “I said to Joann, let’s go for a roll.”

Outside, Joann discovered some extra orange safety cones and set up an obstacle course. “She pushed me through it quickly and the first time we hit a pothole, she liked to throw me out of that stupid chair,” Kathy laughs. “We had a blast, sitting outside talking to people walking their dogs.”

By evening, clouds from Frances’ outer ring brushed the sky, but the storm plodded along at 5 miles an hour. Bored, the sisters took to “naming” their shelter-mates. There was Birdman, owner of a nervous, motley cockatoo. Suspender Man’s cocker spaniel barked incessantly.

Tower Lady had a 7-foot-tall stack of cages containing cats, dogs, a chinchilla, and various birds and rodents. Tower Lady confided in the bathroom line that she’d just gotten out of jail. Apparently, the county jail had released all non-felon inmates and many had headed for the fairgrounds shelter.

That night Ball called her son in Kentucky. “I told him God called us two-by-two to the ark, but he hasn’t closed the door yet. And we’re getting ready to sacrifice the cocker spaniel.”

Jet planes & kitty litter

When Frances hit, she hit big. About 1:30 Sunday morning, “I thought the roof was coming off,” Ball recalls.

“It sounded like jet planes taking off. It felt like the concrete floor was vibrating. You could feel rain blowing in when the wind lifted the metal roof. Everyone was deadly silent, even the cocker spaniel. It was scary.”

Within 15 minutes the electricity went out and the room quickly heated up to about 100 degrees. “That room was stinking,” Ball recalls. “There was body odor, people and animal bad breath, stinking fur, kitty litter... I have a newfound appreciation for Noah.”

Frances battered the shelter all day Sunday. A single generator-powered shop light enabled the Balls to play cards and chat with neighbors, but the heat and living conditions took their toll.

Kathy Ball says, “You try and hide it, but I was becoming miserable. I was tired, not eating, biting my cheeks and tongue, having swallowing problems. The wheelchair was hard to sit on all day, and I got stiff.” By Sunday night, “everybody was on everybody’s nerves.”

Sunday night, she says, “was the most interesting of all.”

A woman was arrested trying to sneak out (no one was allowed to leave). There was a heart attack, a heat stroke and a spider bite.

And Ugly Naked Fat Guy earned his name when he stripped off his clothes in the middle of the night and walked to the bathroom stark naked, accompanied by his cursing, complaining wife.

Home again

Frances moved out early Monday, but flooding kept the family at the shelter until afternoon. Luckily, the Newburns’ house survived with minimal damage. Kathy and Paul stayed another week until the electricity came back on and her father was released from the hospital.

Now back in Kentucky, Ball says she still feels weak and her muscles aren’t recovering as quickly as she’d hoped. Does she wish she hadn’t gone? Her answer reveals the ongoing strength of her spirit.

“And miss all the fun? Oh no!”

Christina Medvescek
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