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Turtle power helps hurricane-hit aquarium

King Midas is back at home at the New Orleans aquarium.  The 300-pound sea turtle is one of a handful of creatures there that survived Hurricane Katrina.
Handlers return a green sea turtle to his home tank in the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans
Handlers return King Midas, a 300-pound green sea turtle, to his home tank in the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans on Thursday.Lucas Jackson / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

One New Orleans resident returned home with a thunderous splash.

King Midas, a 300-pound sea turtle, slid back into his home Thursday at the New Orleans aquarium, one of a handful of creatures that survived Hurricane Katrina.

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas lost about 10,000 of the 15,000 animals in its collection because of the hurricane, spokeswoman Melissa Lee said.

But Midas, the 19-member penguin colony, two sea otters, an anaconda, the aquarium’s bird collection, the tarpon, a few stingrays and a few hundred freshwater fish weathered the storm.

“It was a beautiful collection and it will be very hard to replace,” Lee said. “But we will.”

The survivors, who were sent to aquariums around the country, will be brought back, Lee said. Midas was only an overnight drive away at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas.

“It’s really a sign of hope and rebuilding. It was a big rallying point for our staff, they’ve gone through so much, losing animals they worked with for 20-plus years,” Lee said.

After the hurricane, the surviving penguins and sea otters had their own security of sorts for a time. When the aquarium staff moved out in the midst of looting and flooding, New Orleans police officers moved in and set up a command post.

“Our guys literally, as they were leaving, gave those guys a crash course in how to care for penguins and otters, and they did.” Lee said.

John Hewitt, the senior vice president and director of husbandry, returned to the aquarium a few days after Katrina. What he saw — and smelled — bore no resemblance to the aquatic masterpiece he left behind.

\"King Midas,\" a 136 kg (300lb) green sea turtle, swims in his tank shortly after being returned to his usual tank at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana October 13, 2005. \"King Midas\" was evacuated from the aquarium following Hurricane Katrina and is the first animal to return to the Aquarium following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. REUTERS/Lucas JacksonLucas Jackson / X01783

The generators were working intermittently, it was about 140 degrees in the Amazon exhibit and the otters were swimming in dirty 90-degree water. The penguins were covered in their own filth, but otherwise seemed OK.

“Penguins are pretty tough little guys,” Hewitt said.

Now comes the task of repopulating the aquarium’s tanks. Some fish and other animals can be collected from the wild, borrowed from other zoos and aquarium or bought. But some — like the 9- to 10-foot sharks — will be hard to find, Lee said.