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Flooded out of Big Easy, veterinarian builds new life in Lawrenceville | TribLIVE.com
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Flooded out of Big Easy, veterinarian builds new life in Lawrenceville

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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Aileen Ruiz moved to Pittsburgh after she was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She owns the Big Easy Animal Hospital and the Big Easy Dog Daze & Cafe in Lawrenceville.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Robert Green Sr., 60, holds a flag near the site of his mother's home in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans where she perished during Hurricane Katrina. His granddaughter also died in the storm. 'This is ground zero,' he says.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Joshua Felix stands with his daughter, Raven, 29, and grandchildren, Tyran Carrie Jr., 4, and Nevaeh Felix, 7, at a welcome home party at his house in New Orleans East on Aug. 24, 2015. Felix has been displaced from his home for a decade since Hurricane Katrina. Felix who lived in the home since 1966, experienced contractor fraud twice since the storm. He tried to live in the home briefly, but it was deemed uninhabitable. The home renovation was completed by the St. Bernard Project and Event Pros Take Action, a nonprofit co-founded by Susie Perelman of Pittsburgh.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Joshua Felix (right) rejoices Aug. 24, 2015, as he enters his renovated home with Mark Wells, a designer with Event Pros Take Action. Felix had been displaced from his home for nearly a decade since Katrina.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Keion Smith, 38, is handed the keys to her home in the Algiers section of New Orleans after being displaced from it for years following Hurricane Katrina. Smith received funding from the Road Home Program to have her house elevated, but the job was not completed by the contractor. The home renovation was completed by the St. Bernard Project and Event Pros Take Action, a nonprofit co-founded by Susie Perelman of Pittsburgh.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Nevaeh Felix, 7, sits on her bed with Linkie Marais, 32, of Mansfield, MA., a volunteer with Event Pros Take Action, at her welcome home party at her grandfather, Joshua Felix's home in New Orleans East on Aug. 24, 2015.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
JaQuan Wright, 16, walks through his newly finished home at a welcome home part for him and his mother, Keion Smith, in Algiers, New Orleans. The home renovation was completed by the St. Bernard Project and Event Pros Take Action, a nonprofit co-founded by Susie Perelman of Pittsburgh. Wright and his mother were displaced for years following Hurricane Katrina.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Nevaeh Felix, 7, stands with her grandfather, Joshua Felix, at a welcome home party at his house in New Orleans East on Aug. 24, 2015. Felix has been displaced from his home for nearly a decade since Hurricane Katrina. Felix who lived in the home since 1966, experienced contractor fraud twice since the storm. He tried to live in the home briefly, but it was deemed uninhabitable.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Ben Quimby, 25, of Concord, Mass., points out an area to sand to Harold Bailey, 27, of New Orleans at a home they are renovating for Johnny Jackson Jr., 72, in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Aug. 24, 2015. The home renovation was completed by the St. Bernard Project and Event Pros Take Action, a nonprofit co-founded by Susie Perelman of Pittsburgh.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Garrett Wilkinson, 32, of Dallas, Tx., volunteers with Event Pros Take Action (EPTA) at a home that they are renovating for Johnny Jackson Jr., 72, in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Aug. 24, 2015. The home renovation was completed by the St. Bernard Project and Event Pros Take Action, a nonprofit co-founded by Susie Perelman of Pittsburgh.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Monique Jeffrey (left), 29, of Boston and Kimberly Sheridan, 21, of Warwick, R.I., volunteers with Event Pros Take Action, take a breather while helping to renovate a home for Johnny Jackson Jr., 72, in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Aug. 24, 2015.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Harold Bailey, 27, of New Orleans East takes a selfie with volunteers from Event Pros Take Action in front of a home in Algiers that was renovated for Keion Smith. The home was rebuilt by St. Bernard Project and Event Pros Take Action, a nonprofit co-founded by Susie Perelman of Pittsburgh. Bailey, who's family home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and rebuilt by SBP and EPTA now volunteers with the groups to help rebuild other homes in New Orleans. 'The past 10 years have been draining. The places that need the most help really haven’t gotten it. The lower Ninth Ward, which was posted all over the TV screen, really didn’t get the help that it needed,” he says.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Susie Perelman, an event planner from Pittsburgh, hugs Capria Baily, 27, of New Orleans East at a welcome home party for Keion Smith in Algiers, New Orleans. Perelman has led a group of colleagues from her industry to New Orleans for the last five years to help rebuild houses and throw lavish “Welcome Home” parties for families who finally can return. “There’s something really magical and special about the community,” said Perelman, 51, of Squirrel Hill, whose Mosaic Inc., a linen and décor rental company in the Strip District handles dinners, galas and other special events. “Unfortunately, the problems down there haven’t been resolved, and we can’t stop until they are.”
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Catherine Dezort, 23, of Oakmont, a volunteer with St. Bernard Project, carries Nevaeh Felix, 7, after she got a treat from an ice cream van in front of her grandfather's New Orleans East home on Aug. 24, 2015.

Ten years ago, Aileen Ruiz arrived in Pittsburgh, sleep deprived and weary from waiting hours in the car to get out of Louisiana, then driving north as Hurricane Katrina approached.

Ruiz, 42, fled the floods to stay with a friend in Pittsburgh. She slept during her first hours here, awaking to watch on TV as New Orleans flooded and her home was destroyed.

“I knew that the city was in deep trouble,” she said. “I knew that I had no home. I had no job. I figured I’d give Pittsburgh a try — and the rest is history.”

Ruiz is originally from Miami. She went to veterinary school in New Jersey, then did an internship in New Orleans and lived there for two years.

Ten years later, she’s met and married her husband and opened a Lawrenceville veterinary clinic named for the city that still has half her heart.

Ruiz opened the Big Easy Animal Hospital in 2005. The clinic focuses on affordable care and aims to always care for the animals first, rather than make lots of money, she said.

The Big Easy’s decor is New Orleans-inspired, with wrought iron on the wall, beads hanging and black-and-white photos of her work rescuing animals in New Orleans after the hurricane. Her house nearby in Lawrenceville also reminds her of New Orleans.

“Everything had to kind of remind me a little bit of New Orleans for me to be OK,” she said.

Her veterinarians don’t wear white coats, and she plans to open a dog-friendly cafe on the side of the clinic, so people can stop in with their pets and enjoy a cup of coffee. It has doggy day care, boarding and grooming services.

The Big Easy Animal Hospital is hosting an anniversary party from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday to give thanks to Pittsburgh and celebrate the spirit of New Orleans. The hospital is bringing in NOLA on the Square to cater food and will have live jazz music.

Ruiz credits Pittsburgh for helping her to rebuild and enabling her to run a successful business. She was depressed for much of her first two years in the city but said she’s learned to be resilient, just like New Orleans and the people who still live there.

“Don’t be stuck in that depression, just move forward,” she said.

She visits New Orleans about twice a year and hopes someday to be able to have homes in both cities.

“I’m fond of Pittsburgh … my home is here,” she said. “My heart is in both places.”

Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5627 or kferral@tribweb.com.

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