Twenty-four years ago as the Kennebec River surged to 20 feet above flood level, a friend of mine and her family were ordered to evacuate their downtown Hallowell home.
It was 1987, and the flood that ravished much of central Maine on that April Fools’ Day remains one of the state’s worst natural disasters on record.
As rescuers prepared the family members to leave for safer ground, they advised them to put their dog and two cats in the attic.
The floodwaters should not get that deep.
Since the dog, Sarge, did not get along well with the cats, rescuers suggested hooking him up on the lawn of the town library, which was located on higher ground and presumed safe.
The family’s home was washed off its foundation and lost and the library and all surrounding property were flooded. My friend will never forget watching Sarge’s doghouse float through the middle of town the following day.
Family members lost all of their belongings, and the loss of all of their pets added tremendous heartache to their tragedy.
If the same scenario were to happen today, those pets would have a much greater chance of survival due in large part to the horrors that the world witnessed in the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina.
Amy Gentle, an aptly named employee at the Bangor Humane Society, went to New Orleans in the aftermath of that 2005 hurricane and witnessed the plight of the animals and the owners who loved them.
Today, Gentle has taken the lead of the Penobscot County Animal Response Team.
After Katrina, Congress passed laws requiring states and counties to adopt strategies and plans to incorporate animal rescue into their emergency response team.
There are 12 animal response teams throughout the state that fall under the authority of the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
Since its formation three years ago, the PCART has not been called to duty, but Gentle said the preparation and planning are always under way.
“That’s the majority of what we do. We plan and train and plan and train some more so that when a disaster does strike we are well-tuned and ready to do what needs to be done,” she said.
The eight members of PCART are trained in animal and human first aid and learn to work under the Incident Command System through online courses offered by the Emergency Management Institute.
The teams also are prepared to be called upon for “manmade disasters” such as large seizures of animals in animal abuse situations, Gentle said.
“We can perform basic first aid, we can perform rescues and we know the logistics of how to go about setting up emergency shelters and getting the volunteers needed to help staff those shelters,” Gentle said.
During Katrina, thousands of animals were lost or abandoned when their owners fled. Other animal owners refused to leave their homes without their pets, sometimes at their own peril.
“That doesn’t need to happen here,” Gentle said, “Ideally when we set up an emergency animal shelter it will be near a Red Cross shelter for humans so that the animal owners can safely evacuate and know that their pet is nearby and also safe. That is the ultimate goal and what we are trained to help ensure,” she said.
Each disaster, natural or man-made, brings with it lessons. Lessons often learned through tragedy.
On this April Fools’ Day, as a foot of snow blankets the state, we seem to be better prepared than we were during the April Fools’ Day Flood in 1987.
Today, with organizations like PCART, my friend from Hallowell would have a safe place to shelter her pets during a flood.
Gentle would love to hear from anyone interested in becoming part of the PCART team.
“All it takes is a love of animals, a willingness to work hard during a disaster and some training,” she said.
Renee Ordway is a member of the board of directors of the Bangor Humane Society.