Missions of mercy in wake of storm
Volunteers leave home to lend a hand
By Brenda J. Buote
September 18, 2005

Cynthia Sweet of Essex has spent the past 10 days in Louisiana, at times covered from head to toe in mud and dog fur. And she loves it.

Working in sweltering heat, Sweet has been helping hundreds of Hurricane Katrina's four-legged victims find a safe home.

As a founding member of Project Starfish, a grass-roots effort to rescue animals displaced by the devastating storm, she is working 12-hour days roaming the streets of Louisiana in search of needy animals and aiding rescue efforts at makeshift shelters, including the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales.

''We've had people come to us and say, 'Please take my dog. I don't know where I'm going to go and I can't take my dog with me,' " Sweet said in a phone interview from Alexandria, a small city on the Red River in central Louisiana. She was staying in Alexandria with the owner of an animal shelter called ''Broken Down Dogs."

Before the hurricane hit, Broken Down Dogs was caring for stray animals that had been abandoned or surrendered by their owners. In the days after the storm, Sweet and other volunteers -- including Karin Gero of Manchester-by-the-Sea, who flew to Louisiana with Sweet on Sept. 7 -- helped the shelter owner find homes for ''pre-hurricane" dogs to make room for Katrina's orphans.

''It's heartbreaking," said Gero, who returned home Monday night. ''The animals are in sad shape; many are just skin and bones and most are in need of medical attention."

Sweet and Gero, moved by what was happening to animals in the wake of the storm, booked flights as soon as they could. Gero bought a round-trip ticket; Sweet got a one-way ticket. Sweet said last week that she has no idea when she will return. She is using vacation time from her job at Northeastern University.

''The volunteers down here are doing all they can, but there's just so much to do," said Sweet.

Initially, Sweet and Gero thought they would rescue about 25 animals. Sweet teamed up with Kara Peterson of Watertown to begin an e-mail campaign to rally support. They were soon joined by Laura Gargano of Merced, Calif. Sweet has never met Peterson or Gargano. Their only bond is concern for the welfare of the animals.

A website was soon launched and Project Starfish was born.

The nonprofit took its name from a fable about a Buddhist monk who rescued a stranded starfish that had washed ashore with thousands of others in a fierce storm. The monk explained to his disciple -- a student who viewed his master's actions as futile because so many starfish were in need of help -- that he had rescued the lone creature because ''it makes a difference to this one."

The organization has been flooded with donations, which will be used to examine the animals in Louisiana before they make the long journey to new homes, as well as offers from more than 1,000 animal lovers looking to adopt a rescued animal. Roughly 400 of the would-be foster families are from Massachusetts.

Peterson said the organization had collected more than $6,000 as of Wednesday. ''The biggest donation we've gotten so far was $1,000. The smallest was $2. That one made me cry because it was so sweet, donated to us by someone who couldn't afford to give more."

As Project Starfish works to rescue animals, other North Shore residents have focused efforts on helping families.

More than a dozen people from the North Shore have volunteered to go to southern cities, and three people went to Alabama with the Red Cross the week of the storm, according to Alan Temkin, who serves on the board of directors for the American Red Cross of Northeast Massachusetts in Beverly.

David Belsky of West Newbury, who had expected to be in the region on Monday evening as a volunteer for the Red Cross, was waylaid for several days because flights to Louisiana were backlogged. Belsky was hoping to be in Baton Rouge by this morning to help set up communications equipment and computers to aid the relief efforts.

Several natives of Boston's northern suburbs living in New Orleans when Katrina hit were struggling to rebuild their lives.

Kellie Panus, a Danvers native, her husband, Stephen, and their 16-month-old son, Jake, are staying with her parents in Middleton, N.H. They lived in New Orleans for 10 years and have decided to plant permanent roots in the Northeast. They're hoping Stephen, a corporate attorney who specializes in the law of trademarks, real estate, and copyrights, will be able to find work soon.

''It's very unsettling, like being knocked back down to when you graduated from college and had nothing. But we're all coping," said Kellie Panus.

Mark DeMel, 22, was in New Orleans preparing to start classes at Loyola University when word of the storm reached campus Aug. 27, two days before the storm decimated the city.

He put 6,000 miles on his car in a week, driving first to Texas in hopes he would be able to ride out the storm at a friend's house. When Loyola was closed, DeMel headed home to Wakefield. From there, he made arrangements to attend classes at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania.

''I plan to donate blood and when I get back to Loyola -- at this point, they're saying the school will be open in January," he said. ''I hope to be able to help rebuild the city."

For information on Project Starfish, visit www.projectstarfish.org.

To learn more about other ways you can help, visit the website for the American Red Cross of Northeast Massachusetts at www.northeastmassredcross.org

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at bbuote@globe.com