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Clinging to Life—and Whatever Floats

Mark Larabee

Photos by Steven Nehl
The Oregonian   December 12, 2007

Nancy Punches stared at the turbulent water. Swollen by back-to-back storms, the Chehalis River had filled its channel and fanned out over a wide bench of rain-soaked earth. But, on that soggy Sunday evening, it was still far below the rural road running by her house.

In her six years of living 13 miles west of Chehalis, Nancy had never seen the river flood. Neighbors who’d long lived along that stretch of the Chehalis told her they’d never seen it cover the road, not even in ’96, when it flowed over its banks and closed Interstate 5. Surely, this storm was no worse.

Reassured, Nancy turned back home, counting on a restful night’s sleep.

 

An energetic 74-year-old American Kennel Club judge with rosy cheeks and long silver hair, Nancy bred prize-winning American foxhounds, a champion bloodline she’d been perfecting since the mid-1970s. She lived in a double-wide manufactured home set up high on eight acres of pastureland.

That Sunday night, Dec. 2, she checked on her dogs and a 5-week-old litter of six puppies and went to sleep. She rolled out of bed Monday morning and looked out the window.

Brown water covered her yard, submerging her Chevy van up to its engine block. Even if she could get the van started, water had reached the road and blocked any possible escape.

She slipped on her knee-high rubber boots and ran to the kennel. Just outside the door, in ankle-deep water, she snatched the puppies and hustled them inside, the mother dog in tow. She locked them in her bedroom.

Back outside minutes later, the water was up to her knees. No time to lose. She leashed five dogs and tugged them toward the house. Water lapped at the stairs. The current rushed harder, and the dogs struggled against it. Nancy managed to pull them inside, locking one in the bathroom and the other four in a utility room.

She looked outside again. Water rushed by, carrying logs the torrent had ripped free. The flood had stranded 10 more dogs in kennels. She’d had some of them for years and most were champions. She looked at the rushing water, by then impossibly high and fast, and reluctantly shut the door.

 

Nancy Punches.

Nancy busied herself putting photos and breeding records higher, hoping to keep them dry. The puppies yelped, and she pulled open the bedroom door.

Water boiled through the floor. Two puppies already had drowned in 6 inches of water. She put the other four in a plastic clothes basket on the bed. She turned Ebbie, their mother, loose to fend for herself.

Priss, one of her oldest females, barked in the laundry room. Nancy rushed to find the dogs scratching at the washing machine, trying to climb on top. She helped them up and cleared food cans off a shelf, setting one of the dogs on it. She closed the door and headed back to the bedroom through waist-high water. The mattress floated among the bedroom debris, the four puppies safe for the moment.

Nancy, certain the river would stop rising, methodically plotted one move after another. The icy water had soaked her jeans and fleece. It filled her boots. She took some comfort that her shivering helped keep her warm.

Tired of swimming, Ebbie climbed onto the dining-room table. Nancy again checked on the puppies. The mattress was sinking. She put them into a plastic foam shipping container.

It floated!

Nancy climbed onto the kitchen counter. The water climbed higher, covering her chairs. Over the window ledges. Then up the blinds, one horizontal slat at a time. Furniture tipped and sank.

Standing on the counter, hunched over uncomfortably, Nancy looked toward the utility room. Priss and the other foxhounds were trapped, out of reach. Nancy turned away and tried not to listen. She fought off tears.

The puppies floated in their box, sitting like statues, afraid to move. On the counter, the water climbed to Nancy’s waist. She looked at the blinds. The water covered still more slats.

The table floated and tipped, sending Ebbie swimming. She made it to the wide-screen television and teetered on it. Nancy stood on her counter, helpless. The water popped the oven door open. A large antique oak bookshelf unit, built with cabinets underneath, shifted, spilling Nancy’s curio collection into the water. The bookcase floated free.

A few more slats of the window blinds disappeared. Nancy grabbed a plastic shopping bag filled with other bags. She kicked off her boots, mustered her courage, held the shopping bag for flotation and stepped off the counter into the frigid water.

She swam to the floating bookshelf. Normally, she had trouble pulling herself out of a swimming pool, but she pulled herself right onto the bookcase. She lay flat to keep it from tipping, her feet in the water, her head raised. At the window, only a few slats were still uncovered.

The puppies floated quietly. Nancy shivered, hypothermal, and hallucinated on top of the bookcase. Two slats remained. Then one. The murky water covered the window, and the light winked out. The water kept rising. Nancy reached up and touched the ceiling.

 

In the dark, floating on her makeshift raft, Nancy struggled to keep her head above water. With only 10 inches of clearance remaining, the water’s steady rise seemed to slow.

Then it stopped.

She had no sense of time, but eventually dusk flickered into the room through the window. The water was dropping, and a bit of this awful Monday remained. Ebbie was gone, drowned. But Nancy couldn’t think of the dogs. She had to think of herself. To stay alive. And she still had the pups.

Through the night, the water dropped until Nancy could again stand up. She couldn’t see, but she managed to get the puppies inside her fleece pullover. She held their warmth against her and wandered the room, hallucinating that the walls were made of glass. A puppy stuck his head out and licked her face, then pulled himself back under the pullover.

Just keep moving, she thought. Don’t give up.

Flood debris pinned the doors shut. She heard helicopters overhead. She thought about breaking a window but was afraid the air would be too cold. Her feet felt like footballs. The puppy popped out and licked her face again.

Then daylight. Tuesday morning, Dec. 4. In her delirium, she saw a wooden dog on the steps. Dr. Seuss birds on a fence. A gray cow with fuzzy ears and a funny face. A little girl near the house.

Nancy called to the little girl, asking for help. The girl went away and got a neighbor, who screamed and rushed over. The girl, at least, hadn’t been a hallucination.

Nancy Punches with her bookcase and the dog she named Noah.

The neighbor broke down the door. Nancy still held the puppies. Her neighbor wrapped her in a blanket and called an ambulance. A friend took the puppies. Nancy sat in a car, warming herself by the heater. She ate six Oreo cookies. The medics took her to Providence Hospital in Centralia.

She’s still there, recovering from a deep cut on her left foot that doctors want to watch carefully. Nancy knows she’s lucky to be alive. She thinks she’s pretty tough.

One of her dogs, a hound named Hawk, was found alive, downstream, buried to his neck in mud. The rest are probably dead, she figures. Even before the flood, the prized puppies had been sold. Nancy’s a breeder, after all.

On Sunday, a friend sneaked the little puppy who’d repeatedly licked her face into her hospital room and sat him on the bed. The dog sniffed, looked up and then bounded toward her. He licked her face again.

Another survivor. She won’t sell that one, she says. She’s named him Noah.