By Jean C. Keating
Flood warnings abounded for the Shockoe Slip area as the waters and winds from what had been Hurricane Francis bore down on Richmond. Debbie Reams remained at her post at the Medical College of Virginia [MCV] till her shift ended at 4:00 pm on that eventful Monday because her critical role as a nurse with the heart-transplant unit required it and because MCV , though only blocks away from Shockoe bottom, is on much higher ground.
Her normal twenty-minute drive home took over two hours and was punctuated by many detours to avoid flooded roadways far from Shockoe Bottom. Brown water that smelled of decaying vegetation flooded Debbie’s street and yard and lapped against the first step of her front porch by the time she reached her home. She sloshed through the rising waters to reach her seven dogs inside. Although she hurriedly packed for herself and the furkids, the rising waters had already reached the third step of her home by the time she loaded supplies and three Papillons, three Tibetan Spaniels and a rambunctious Rhodesian ridgeback puppy into her SUV. She drove slowly off her street through rising water and on to the nearest main thoroughfare. There a rushing wall of water stalled the car in the left lane of Brook Road. Debbie hastily dialed her friend and vet Joe on her cell phone, while shouting to the woman driving a red car stalled in the right lane of the road that they all needed to get out of the cars and to higher ground. Joe answered the phone just as it went dead.
Cold, brown, foul-smelling waters flooded the car and reached Debbie’s
waist. She managed to open the door of the flooded SUV and push most of
the dogs out in the rushing water. The occupants of the red car, the mother
who was driving and her two teen age daughters, struggled to help, assisting
the dogs to deal with the rushing water as Debbie handed the remaining
dogs out the window to their waiting arms. Together the four humans managed
to get all the dogs except a panicked, fourteen year old Tibbie named Katie
out of the car.
An out-of-state driver in a pickup saw their difficulties and backed his vehicle part way down into the rushing water from higher ground on the road and came to assist. Grabbing a floating plastic trash can, he and the three women helped Debbie get the six dogs into the trash can and on to the bed of his pickup truck. When Debbie tried to go back to her SUV for Katie, two other teens struggling along the roadway intervened.
Instructing Debbie, and the three women from the red car, to stay with the rescued dogs in the trash can on the bed of the pickup, the two swam to the SUV and managed to retrieve a limp, shocky Katie from the cabin where only an inch of air reminded between the flood waters and the inside top of the vehicle’s cabin.
The two swam back with the elderly Tibbie, placed her in the grateful arms of her owner, joined the other four humans in the bed of the truck, and the truck driver drove the six humans and seven dogs to higher ground just as Debbie’s SUV was swept away by the rushing flood waters.
The nearest shelter was a Ukrops grocery, and the truck driver helped to settle the six humans and the trash can with the seven dogs in the lobby of the store before continuing on his journey. There the five rescuers stayed with Debbie, while people passed through and offered help with towels and brought her leashes to replace those lost in the trauma. The butcher came out to asked if meat would help, an offer greeted with differing responses by the seven canines. The puppy quickly recovered his appetite and greeted the treats with glee. Katie was in shock and barely breathing, but alive. The Papillons recovered their bright, excitable natures in the face of willing hands to pet and praise them and caring people who offered handouts and help.
Debbie found she had no money or identification, since her purse was missing, but was delighted to discover that her cell phone still worked. A second call to her friend and vet Joe, brought a deep expression of relief that she was alive and on dry ground -- relieving his anxiety since the last words he’d heard on their previous cell phone conversation before it was abruptly terminated had been “We’re all going to die” – and a promise that he would come over to get her and the dogs. Joe and his son Allen were only five miles away, but they had to drive some 35 miles to reach Debbie and the dogs, thanks to the detours necessary to get around flooded streets and neighborhoods.
Joe’s first problem was Katie, who was in shock from her near-fatal ordeal. He did what he could to stabilize the elderly Tibbie at the store front. Then with the help of Debbie’s five friends-from-the-floor, he got Debbie and all the dogs loaded into his truck for the trip to his vet clinic. The two young girls, to whom Katie owed her life, declined offers of help, saying they were within walking distance of their home. The mother and her two daughters elected to wait for family members to connect with them at Ukrops. So Debbie parted company with her five rescuers with tears of gratitude dimming her view.
Back at Joe’s vet clinic, the excited dogs were fed, watered and finally bedded down for the night. Katie was given fluids to combat her shock and lethargic, wrapped in warm blankets and taken along with Debbie to Joe’s house for the night.
The next day brought two calls from the Richmond police. The first was to report the finding of Debbie’s SUV in a stream bed near the point where it had been swept from the road by the flood waters. The second was to report the finding of her purse, money and important papers still in it, as store many miles away. As best Debbie could reconstruct, she’d left her purse in the bed of the out-of-state driver’s truck in the confusion of getting her dogs, herself and their human Samaritans into shelter at Ukrop’s. Perhaps the driver found the purse on his way out of town and left it at a nearby store to be returned. She may never know exactly what happened, only that kind and considerate people helped to get it back to her.
Later that day, Joe drove her back to her home to survey the damage left by the flood waters. Her next-door neighbor’s home was demolished. Debbie’s was still standing though everything in the yard was smashed and scattered. Her mail box was gone, and debris from other homes dotted her yard. In a shallow puddle of water at the end of her driveway, a small fish struggled for life. In the midst of so much devastation, this small life was supremely precious to both Debbie and Joe, so Debbie rushed inside to find some sort of bowl into which she could put water and then the fish. An unbroken container was not easy to find, and when Debbie finally returned to the end of her drive, Joe and fish were gone. He’d run down the block with the water cupped around the fish in his hand to return it to a slowing receding creek at the end of her block.
By nightfall, Debbie, Katie and the remainder of her dogs were glad to be in a home that didn’t leak even if power was not restored for another full day. They had repairs to make and a daunting list of tasks to deal with. But by candlelight there was time to give each of the dogs a hug and to give thanks for the kind, compassionate, unsung heroes who’d helped to save their lives and offered them comfort through their watery ordeal.
© 2004 Jean Keating All Rights Reserved Jean Keating can be reached at
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