WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. — Shawn Smith, a volunteer firefighter, risked his life for the people of his flooded town on the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma.
And not just for the people.
Mr. Smith waded into waist-high floodwaters in one evacuated house over the weekend and came out holding Sammich, a scared gray-and-white cat, one of three he helped pull out of the same house.
It was part of a different kind of rescue mission, one where swift-water boats made their way through swirling floodwaters to ferry out wet dogs and drenched cats. Rescuers in helmets gathered under a partly submerged tree at one point to retrieve a dog that had climbed into the branches seeking higher ground.
“They’re just as important as people, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Smith, 34, said of the stranded pets. He was part of an animal rescue team that journeyed into the small town of Webbers Falls, a few days after the town’s human population had been evacuated.
Mr. Smith, along with others from the Webbers Falls Volunteer Fire Department and two nonprofit animal-welfare groups, made no apologies for spending the day chasing cats. Webbers Falls was a watery ghost town under a mandatory evacuation order, and there was no one there who needed rescuing — no one except for the frightened animals that had been left behind.
“They need rescue, they need help, and they don’t have the ability to help themselves, like we do,” Mr. Smith said. “This is our home. This is our community. These are our friends and our family. I volunteered 11 years ago to take care of that. Our animals are our family as well.”
After nearly five hours in the water on Sunday, Mr. Smith and the others had rescued three dogs and five cats. One more that was proving elusive was Charlie — an aging dog-about-town who belongs to no one, and everyone, in Webbers Falls. At one point, rescuers spotted Charlie on some dry land and tried to coax him into the boat, to no avail.
“He’s a little skittish,” Mr. Smith said. “He doesn’t really let anybody touch him. But he’s always around. If you’re outside having a barbecue or whatever, he may wander up and say hi.”
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Mr. Smith has four dogs and two cats of his own, “and then we take care of all the neighborhood strays as well,” he said. His house is flooded, so he has been staying in recent days at a nearby hotel with his wife and daughter. His cats and dogs are at his mother’s house.
On Sunday, the rescue team — four women and five men — worked with a quiet resolve. Some of those with the animal welfare groups, American Humane and Code 3 Associates, were highly trained and disaster-hardened, after having performed animal rescues in wildfires, floods and hurricanes around the country. One of the rescuers, whose wife was in hospice care for cancer, received word in the middle of the animal operation that his wife had died. He continued working, determined to see the mission through.
Webbers Falls — a community of 596 people about 35 miles from the Arkansas state line — is a town under water. The floodwaters rose almost to the top of a small school bus, and reached the bottom of the cross on the wall outside one submerged church. Dozens of homes and businesses had several feet of water inside, and the roads were lakes; boats were the only means of travel.
“It’s devastating,” said Mr. Smith, who works at a grain and barge company. “I watched my own house go under water while trying to help everybody else. I have, probably, six to eight feet in my house.”
Runoff from storms last week pushed the Arkansas River over its banks and forced the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from the Keystone Dam west of Tulsa to pour downstream. Webbers Falls had a scare last week that made national news, after floodwaters broke two barges loose from their moorings and sent them careening toward a dam just upstream from Webbers Falls. People in town feared an impact would cause a catastrophic breach. But the barges bumped into the dam and sank without causing major damage.
Early on, many residents decided to ride out the storm and simply keep an eye on the water levels. But the looming danger of the approaching barges — “Leave now!!” read one posting on the town’s Facebook page — prompted many of them to flee suddenly, without the means or the time to bring their pets, Mr. Smith said.
Residents who had left animals at home notified the fire department and the authorities, and the rescue team on Sunday had a list of addresses to check. All the pets who were rescued went to an animal shelter in Muskogee, about 20 miles away, to await pickup by their owners.
The last rescue happened near the end of the afternoon. Someone spotted something in the distance, following the boats as they were leaving. The team stopped to wait, and with a shock of recognition, they saw a straggly creature swimming toward them.
They reached down and plucked it out of the water. It was Charlie.