Monday, June 27, 2011

Flood shelter in Pierre, South Dakota

Submitted by RedRover Responders volunteer Debbie Ferguson of Kildeer, Illinois

One of many houses flooded
in Pierre, South Dakota

Across the nation Mother Nature has been unleashing her fury; from tornados, to wildfires, to flooding, she is wreaking havoc on land, people and animals alike. And the RedRover Responders have been deploying almost non-stop, trying to make life just a little bit more bearable for the people who have lost their homes and for some, their loved ones, by helping to care for their pets while they try to rebuild their lives. We see the pictures on the nightly news and our hearts break for those who have lost so much, while we are amazed at their resiliency and their will to move on. And then we turn off the TV and go to sleep, comfortable in our own intact homes and in our own beds with our beloved families and pets nearby. Sweet dreams...

I am ashamed to say that is how I reacted until I participated in several disaster responses as a RedRover Responder in the past couple of months. To see the destruction and the emotional toll in pictures or on video is one thing; to see it in person is another; to meet someone who is going through the loss is a whole new ballgame, one that changes you forever. That is what happened to me this past week in Pierre, South Dakota.

Amy Green holds two
tiny rescued kittens.

I spent the past few days, along with two other RedRover Responders assisting in caring for animals displaced by flooding or by forced evacuations due to the rising Missouri River. We had approximately 100 animals; dogs, cats, chinchillas, rabbits, chickens and even a goldfish. I assumed we would be far removed from the threat of flooding, so I was surprised on landing in Pierre (in a torrential downpour, by the way) that the road to our hotel was closed due to flooding, and after finding a round-a-bout way to get there, saw sandbags stacked up all around the hotel in an attempt to keep the water from creeping any closer to the building. That was when I first realized the fear the people in this community were experiencing. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well, but made my way to the temporary shelter the next morning and began tending to the animals that had been left in our care. As the day wore on and the rain continued, the threat of further flooding increased. It was then that I met Denice Felker and her three Schnauzers – Tasha, Teddy and Pepper.

We were getting ready to get the animals settled in for the evening when we received a call from a local emergency services organization asking if we had room to house more animals. We assured her we did and that we would be happy to stay until they arrived. Shortly after, Denice and her schnauzers arrived. She had been given minutes to evacuate her home in Fort Pierre as the river crept closer and closer. She was terrified of losing her home, but even more terrified of leaving her “kids.” But her choices were limited so she came to us.

With tears flowing, she shared her fears of losing everything, and of trying to rebuild what was left on her own, but her biggest worry was leaving her babies. The three dogs obviously knew something was wrong as all three were clinging to her and whimpering.

Amy comforts and calms Jasmine.
We all choked back tears as we assured her we would take very good care of her babies and give them as much love and attention as possible. We weren’t sure when we would see Denice again, but knew she wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away long.

The following day, as all of our dogs were taking their afternoon naps and everything was quiet, Denice walked in. I approached her right away, happy she was able to come and visit her babies, and then thrilled when she told me she was taking them home! I told her how happy I was that she had suffered no damage and was able to move back home. And then I felt awful as her eyes again filled up with tears and she told me that her home was sitting in several inches of water and she wasn’t sure what to do or who to call for help. But in the same breath, she told me how grateful she was that we had been here for her and her babies at the moment they needed us. And I felt so honored that she trusted us to take care of the three loves of her life while she figured out her next moves. And witnessing her strength of character I had no doubt her next moves would be winning moves.

Denice is reunited with her Schnauzers.

But the best part of this story is the reunion! I have never heard or seen three dogs so happy to see their person. We couldn't get them out of their kennel fast enough! When we were able to round them up they leapt into her arms and covered her with kisses for at least 10 minutes! They kissed her, they kissed us, and they kissed each other! And then it started all over again!

Once things calmed down, I asked Denice where she would be living while her home was being repaired and she told me she and her babies would be returning home. I was concerned, knowing the dangers of living in a home that had suffered that kind of damage, and worried about how her dogs would adapt, but she responded with such a simple and amazing statement; "they may not have a yard, but they have me...and I have them. We’ll figure it out together."

And now this story gets even better... As we were talking, one of the local volunteers overheard Denice talking about her concerns. I had seen Michelle Jones each day but with our jam-packed days hadn't had a chance to get to know her. She approached us and gave Denice the name and number of the Civil Air Patrol, who she said would be willing to send cadets out to assist her with any labor needed. She then described how they had been helping her and her husband since they had been forced to evacuate their home a month ago and how she was planning on calling on them again since the waters had finally reached her home in the past week.

Flood victim Michele holds
her favorite cat.

 I was stunned! Here was a woman whose home was possibly ruined, and she had spent the past ten days (as I discovered from the volunteer logbook) volunteering her time to help care for the displaced animals of her neighbors! Though she downplayed her selflessness by saying it helped keep her mind off of her problems, I couldn't help but wonder how many people would spend their time volunteering their services to those impacted by such a disaster when they were facing their own disaster, and I realized that I was in the company of not just one, but two very strong and special women. Humbled and inspired, I knew that those of us listening to their stories would be better people for having met them, and would never again turn off the nightly news and sleep soundly after hearing of another natural disaster displacing people and animals without making plans to do something to help.

 I am so thankful for all of our RedRover Responders, especially those who have deployed in the last few natural disasters, for helping people like Denice know that there is someone in their corner who is looking out for them and their animals in their time of need. After witnessing the after-effects of these devastating disasters first hand, and seeing the results of the different reactions to the disaster, I am hopeful that if we are ever faced with similar situations we will be able to deal with them with as much strength and gratitude as Denice, and with as much compassion and selflessness as Michelle.

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