A picture and its story: Dogs in the disaster zone

LELAND, N.C., Sept 19 (Reuters) - Three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, I was documenting the damage to Wilmington and communities to the south when I was tipped that volunteer rescuers were headed to a Leland church where people were isolated by rising floodwaters.

Even with a pickup truck, it is daunting to drive through waters dark and deep enough to obscure road signs. But experience covering storms and good waders enable you to cautiously measure water depth and current strength so you can get to compelling stories waiting to be told.

Ryan Nichols and David Rebollar have another way of getting to people and animals trapped by floods: a boat they haul from their Texas home to disaster zones. In the case of North Carolina, that was more than a thousand miles (1,600 km).

Having endured Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston last year, the former Marines are on a mission to help when disaster strikes.

This day, as they lowered their craft into the water from a slice of dry land, a road was identifiable only by a few 7-foot-high street signs jutting above water. My colleague and I joined Nichols in the boat, and we made our way to the church about a thousand feet (300 meters) ahead.

Colonies of fire ants formed little islands floating beside toys. Desultory swing sets, as well as trees, gravestones and doleful statues, peered above the waterline.

While Nichols spoke with people at the church, we heard persistent barking at the back of a property across from it. He went to investigate and before long reappeared, saying urgently that “they” were trapped and we should hurry.

We moved through knee-high water until we saw three hounds in a caged doghouse - two on their hind legs, the other on all fours with its head just above water. They were trembling, terrified and desperate to get out.

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Caged dogs rescued from Hurricane Florence flooding
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Caged dogs rescued from Hurricane Florence flooding
Panicked dogs that were left caged by an owner who fled rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, are rescued by volunteer rescuer Ryan Nichols of Longview, Texas, in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Abandoned dogs trapped in a cage, filling with rising floodwater, swim away after volunteer rescuer Ryan Nichols of Longview, Texas, freed them in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake SEARCH "DRAKE DOGS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Panicked dogs that were left caged by an owner who fled rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, swim free after their release in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Panicked dogs that were left caged by an owner who fled rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, swim free after their release in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
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Nichols tried to soothe the dogs as he worked to open the cage. When he did, not three but six dogs bounded out, half swimming, half bouncing through a stretch of water that led to nearby dry ground. I followed the action with my camera close to the water at their height.

A neighbor up the street found some dog food, which they devoured.

With more and more people in the vicinity needing help, the volunteers and local residents decided to leave a lot of food for the dogs and let them roam on the higher ground to which they now had access and to tell local authorities about them.

Floodwaters rose in the hours that followed, and only began receding the next day, when Nichols returned to check on the dogs. He encountered their owner, who said she had had to evacuate in haste with young children, and that someone sent to check on the dogs was refused entry to the area because of flooding.

See other animals affected by Hurricane Florence: 

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Pets, animals fight through Hurricane Florence
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Pets, animals fight through Hurricane Florence
A cat clings to the side of a trailer amidst flood waters before it was saved as the Northeast Cape Fear River breaks its banks in the aftermath Hurricane Florence in Burgaw, North Carolina, U.S., September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
EAST FAYETTEVILLE, NC SEP 18: Jasmine does the dog paddle as she was out in the parking lot at an apartment complex with her owner Shianna Locklear. Locklear ventured into the flooded area to check on her flooded car. -The rainy remnants of Hurricane Florence created conditions that caused local creeks and rivers to rise resulting in flooding in East Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer David Kelly carries a dog to safety during Tropical Storm Florence in Lumberton, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill
A cat walks through a flooded street after Hurricane Florence struck Piney Green, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Members of Coast Guard Shallow-Water Response Boat Team 3 help pets stranded by floodwater caused by Hurricane Florence near Riegelwood, North Carolina, U.S. September 16, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Loumania Stewart/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A wet dog waits with his owners as they await rescue from rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Carla Ramm checks on her cat Jackjack after they were loaded onto a boat during their rescue from rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
A German Shepard is seen on a front porch on Macon Street in the flood waters caused by Hurricane Florence in Lumberton, North Carolina, U.S. September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Miczek
A man and his dog get a close look at the beach from a golf cart during Hurricane Florence in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S. September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill
Roger Hedgpeth, carrying his dog Bodie, gets help getting to higher ground via the United States Coast Guard during Tropical Storm Florence in Lumberton, North Carolina, U.S. September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill
HAMPTON, GEORGIA - Marge and Steve Durham, with their dog Seti and Saba the cat, from Myrtle Beach South Carolina park their RVs and settle into the Family Campground section of the Atlanta Motor Speedway which has been made available for evacuees fleeing Hurricane Florence's path in Hampton Georgia on Thursday September 13, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A man walks along the street with his dog as people return to their houses after the passing of Hurricane Florence in New Bern, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Amanda Mason on Newport, N.C. carries a cat she rescued from her neighborhood off of Nine Foot Road on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2018. Mason and her partner Zack McWilliams visited their damaged home and found the displaced cat and carried it out to safety. Their home was flooded by fast rising water from a tributary of the Newport River on Friday night. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
A man and his dog walk along a flooded street after the passage of tropical storm Florence in New Bern, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
An abandoned dog that had been trapped in a cage filling with rising floodwater stands on the steps of its caretaker's home after volunteer rescuer Ryan Nichols of Longview, Texas, freed them in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake SEARCH "DRAKE DOGS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A dog is illuminated by the flashlights and headlamps of rescue workers inside a house during Tropical Storm Florence at night in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. Major poultry and�meat�companies are starting to resume operations in the Carolinas as the torrential rains and flooding unleashed by Hurricane�Florence�start to subside. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sodden cats are brought to a boat by their owner as they are rescued from rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
FAYETTEVILLE, NC - SEPTEMBER 16: Dana Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor (L-R) and their dog, Brownie, sit on an evacuation bus as they leave their home ahead of possible flood waters after Hurricane Florence passed through the area on September 16, 2018 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Rain continues to inundate the region causing concern for large scale flooding after Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina and South Carolina area. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
LUMBERTON, NC - SEPTEMBER 16: From left, Pete Cihuniec and Adam Cooper, members of Colorado Task Force 1, try to catch a dog that got away from its owner as they go door to door checking on residents during Hurricane Florence on September 16, 2018 in Lumberton, North Carolina. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A soaked cat rests at the entrance to a trailer home after swimming there through floodwaters, before eventually being rescued, as the Northeast Cape Fear River breaks its banks after Hurricane Florence in Burgaw, North Carolina, U.S., September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
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(Reporting by Jonathan Drake Editing by Toni Reinhold and Jonathan Oatis)

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