Out of the flooding and into the fire in Houston

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1994:

HOUSTON––Flood rescue in
southeastern Texas from Houston to
Beaumont was expected to become oil spill
rescue in late October along a 24-mile
stretch of the San Jacinto River and possibly
in marshes flanking the Houston Ship Canal.
As ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press,
Texaco crews were still trying to stop leaks
in a pipeline containing 2.1 million gallons
of crude oil between valve stations––the last
of five major pipelines that broke under the
floodwaters. Two gasoline lines burst
together on October 20 and erupted into
flames, injuring 69 people and nearly incin-
erating a Houston SPCA rescue team
including Nick Gilman, disaster coordinator
for the American Humane Association.

“It was very, very close,” Gilman
said. “We had just rescued two cats from
trees and had passed a dog on a rooftop and
a horse on a sandbar. We were turning
around to get the dog and trying to figure out
how to rescue the horse when we heard the
first explosion. We thought it was just a
propane tank or something, and then came
the second one, right where we’d seen the
animals, maybe 200 yards behind us.”
Gilman was talking to fellow res-
cuers on a cellular telephone at the time,
who heard his report from the scene. “That
horse, that dog,” he said. “They couldn’t
have survived.” The boat crew quickly got
everyone including the cats into a Houston
SPCA pickup truck and raced away at 70
miles an hour, just ahead of a 100-foot-high
wall of flame that apparently engulfed the
boat, boat trailer, and the car used to pull
the trailer within seconds.
Eighteen people were killed during
the week of flooding that began October 16.
About 11,500 people fled their homes. Pets,
livestock, wildlife, and animals from exotic
game ranches were caught up in the
chaos––but Gilman praised the Houston
SPCA response as the best-coordinated he’s
seen. “Patti Mercer and her staff are doing a
terrific job,” he said. “The AHA is here
largely in an advisory capacity, because
they already have everything organized.”
“We’ve been really busy,” admit-
ted Mercer, who sent out six boat teams on
October 19 and two the next day. “No other
animal organizations in the Houston area are
actually doing rescues,” she added, but sev-
eral were standing by to help as needed.
Surprisingly, Mercer said, the Houston
SPCA wasn’t having to shelter large num-
bers of displaced animals––”Only about 50,”
she guessed, many of them for people who
were temporarily obliged to stay in tent
cities. Mercer and staff did, however, have
to handle three emus that Gilman brought in.
“The fact that there were emus
floating in the river didn’t surprise me,”
Gilman said. “I was just surprised there
weren’t more of them.”
When they arrived, Mercer said,
they were “very stressed out––tired,
exhausted. That helped, because they kick
and bite like crazy.”
Northeast of Houston, the
United Animal Nations Emergency Animal
Rescue Service dispatched 25 volunteers to
the town of Liberty, near Conroe, on
October 19, led by noted rescuer Terri
Crisp. Montgomery County animal control
officer Leann Plyes called them in after an
exotic animal rancher shot two African
lions, two tigers, and a leopard in their
cages, while various hooved animals and
primates drowned. A rhinoceros was led
away to safety.
“This is worse than the Georgia
flooding last July,” Crisp said. “The ani-
mal shelter is underwater, the power plant
is threatened, and there is the danger of
alligators and water moccasins.”
Gilman didn’t see snakes, he
said, but he added fire ants to the list of
hazards. “Wherever you touch a tree or
bush, you’re likely to get fire ants,” he
said. “Every dog or cat hanging off a fence
is covered with stinging red ants. Some of
them jump into the water and take their
chances, just to get away from the ants.”
By October 21, rescuers concen-
trated on getting hooved stock off of isolat-
ed patches of high ground. Liberty rancher
Howard Pipkins and 20 neighbors got 65 of
his heifers off a railway trestle just minutes
before the first train in days would have
plowed into them.
Relief funds may be sent to the
Houston SPCA at 519 Studemont,
Houston, TX 77007.
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