This week, the town of Hamburg, Iowa, underwater, a woman no one had met before walked into the makeshift city hall — the schoolhouse — and asked where to find the pets who’d been left behind. She wanted to save as many as she could.
“When she walked through the door, we hadn’t thought of it,” said Cathy Crain, the mayor of the town of about 1,100. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t have done it; we just hadn’t thought of it yet. We were trying to figure out how to save the water plant. We’re so grateful. We love our animals here.”
Over the next few days, the woman — 36-year-old Melissa Lenagh, who lives near Glenwood, Iowa — saved cats, dogs, chickens and one rabbit, and reunited them with their owners. She’s affiliated with no organization. She came to Hamburg on her own. She just wanted to help. So she helped.
On Monday, she was looking for ways to offer aid amid the historic flooding. Then she heard about the levee breaks in Hamburg. She dropped her kids off at daycare, hopped in her car and took the 50-minute trip south.
Wearing hip-waders, she went door-to-door in Hamburg, asking people if they knew of any animals left behind. Eventually she hitched a boat ride with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“We ended up with a couple of dogs, several cats, a rabbit and some chickens,” Lenagh said. “The chickens were about the hardest. They gave me a run for my money.”
She climbed trees to rescue cats. Got into second-story windows via rooftops.
The next day, Mayor Crain called Lenagh. More animals needed saving. Could she come back to Hamburg?
Lenagh’s cell number got passed around. People started calling her, giving her the addresses of their flooded homes, asking her to save their pets.
By Wednesday, she had rescued 19 animals. In every house she went to but one, the animals had survived. In many cases, she found them sitting on floating mattresses. Mattresses saved their lives, she said.
Thanks to Lenagh’s efforts, 12-year-old Randa Culley of Hamburg was reunited Wednesday morning with her three dogs — Max, Lilly and Chevy. When Max saw Randa again, he whined and whimpered, and they embraced.
“She didn’t want to let go of him; she was just so happy,” said Randa’s father, Leroy Culley.
The Culleys left Hamburg Sunday, having lost their house and most of their possessions. They’re now staying with family in Union and Plattsmouth, Nebraska, all family members accounted for, including pets. For that, Leroy Culley said, he’s grateful.
“We just didn’t expect it to get that high,” he said of the floodwaters. “It never has.”
When asked why she rushed to Hamburg, Lenagh said that for her it wasn’t even a question.
“You don’t even think,” she said. “If an animal needs to be helped, you just do it. That’s the way that I was raised.”
Lenagh lives on a farm with her husband and their two boys. She’s raising them the same way, to respect animals. She hopes her recent rescues in Hamburg will set a good example.
“I’d be willing to do anything to save an animal’s life,” she said. “It just brought me to tears, I was so happy to help them.”