When a Columbia Gas pipeline ruptured on Sept. 13, triggering dozens of gas explosions and fires that rocked the Merrimack Valley, thousands of homes and businesses lost power. For one Lawrence family, that meant their German shepherd, Kolya, was alone for more than 24 hours in a dark house.
Laura Mancini, who lives in Los Angeles but has family in Lawrence, explained that her sister was eventually able to retrieve Kolya (their parents’ pet), but that the dog began to suffer from severe anxiety, pacing back and forth and barking.
Mancini’s sister has a young child in the home, and with her parents unable to go back into their house right away, the family couldn’t care for Kolya in the way the dog needed. Mancini helped them reach out to the MSPCA.
“They made room for Kolya at the Boston MSPCA until my parents returned to their home and kindly bussed him back to Methuen where my parents were able to retrieve him just hours after contacting them,” Mancini said in an email. “The MSPCA gave my family peace of mind during a time of uncertainty, as their city was crumbling around them.”
Many residents were unable to return to their homes right after the gas explosions and needed to find shelter for their pets. The MSPCA took in 92 pets following the Merrimack Valley gas explosions, said Mike Kelley, MSPCA director of adoption centers and programs.
The organization luckily learned of the disaster early on, when an Animal Control Officer from Lawrence called their Methuen director.
“We anticipated just from the Lawrence part of it alone that there would be animals in need, and we immediately started a plan to [notify] the police department and the fire department that we were available,” he said. “ We wanted to be out in front of it. We didn’t want to wait to be asked for help.”
From experience, the MSPCA knows it’s sorely needed in emergencies, and that it’s presence helps keep people safe, not just their pets.
“We know from a long history, and the Red Cross has documented this, that in times of evacuation and emergency people are less likely to evacuate or respond if their animal is not taken care of as well,” Kelley said. “When animals are not allowed to be evacuated with people, people would stay in harm’s way to not put their animals in jeopardy.”
Aside from contacting officials, the MSPCA spread the word on social media that they were a resource, and quickly pets began to pour in. Staff set up nearly 100 reserve cages in the training room of Nevins Farm for the affected cats and dogs, draping the cages in sheets to calm the animals’ nerves.
Donations poured in, as well. Residents dropped off 600 packages of dog and cat food, more than 50 boxes of cat litter and donated more than $24,000 to the MSPCA Nevins Farm adoption center fund.
“The Merrimack Valley is really a tight knit community, and we’re really proud to be part of that community,” Kelley said. “In these situations, you know, it’s been described to me as ‘family helping family,’ and that’s how it feels.”
Most of the animals have already been reunited with their owners (and they returned with some food, thanks to all those donations). There are about a dozen pets that need more long-term care, from families whose homes saw more intense damage from the gas explosions. The MSPCA is making arrangements to transfer those pets into foster care; the pets will then be reunited with their families as soon as possible.
Kolya was one of the pets already returned home, Mancini said, where the German shepherd is “happy and calm, no longer barking [and] content in his familiar environment.”
After the gas explosions, another MSPCA relief effort
It’s been a busy week for the MSPCA after the gas explosions, but their relief efforts aren’t over.
“This was an unexpected event, it was emergency response as opposed to disaster preparedness,” Kelley said. “Now that we’ve stabilized in this event, we’ll open back up to bring in animals from [Hurricane] Florence.”
The MSPCA will take in some adoptable animals from shelters in North and South Carolina, which frees up space for those shelters to then take in strays and animals displaced by the storm. The MSPCA doesn’t want to bring those displaced animals all the way up to Massachusetts, Kelley explained, because then their owners won’t find them.
“It’s helping with what’s appropriate to help with,” he said. “Putting shelters in those areas in position to be successful with relief efforts in their community.”
MSPCA staff has dubbed this shift in relief efforts “From Lawrence to Florence.” It’s a lot to take on, Kelley admits, but he couldn’t imagine not stepping in.
“It would be easy enough for us to say, ‘No, we’re not going to help with Florence because we’ve been overwhelmed with [the gas explosions], but ultimately we feel like it’s important,” he said. “Whatever relief we can offer, we want to do that and pay it forward.”