PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The night before Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans with her deadly surges and devastating winds, veterinarian Dr. Aileen Ruiz knew it was time to get out.

“Got my pets, book bag of clothes, my diploma, my renter’s insurance and evacuated to Pittsburgh,” she said.

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She came to here to stay with a friend, but when the flood water receded — she went back to rescue stray cats and dogs, staffing a makeshift hospital for the emaciated animals.

“Skinny,” she described them, “It had been two weeks since they’d eaten.”

But while there, Ruiz found her own apartment filled with stench and mold and decided to return to Pittsburgh for good.

Other New Orleans transplants:

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Ten years later she makes the rounds at The Big Easy, a spanking new animal hospital she’s founded in Lawrenceville and has named after the city she left behind. When we visited, she was examining a very large Newfoundland puppy named Hughie.

“His ears look good, his eyes look good, he lost all his puppy teeth, all cavity normal,” she says to Hughie’s owners.

And while the fleur de lis on her scrubs shows that part of her heart will always remain in New Orleans, Ruiz has found a little bit of New Orleans in Lawrenceville’s coffeehouses, galleries and restaurants. To celebrate, she’s planned a Katrina party at the clinic tomorrow — complete with gumbo and jazz bands.

“Everything for kids to pets, just to give thanks to Pittsburgh,” said Ruiz, “because it’s been amazing. It’s been a great 10-year ride.”

Katrina, which took away so much, has also been an invaluable teacher.

“That you can lose everything and if you’re pretty motivated and head strong I think you can do anything,” she says. “It taught me that.”

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