by Timothy Gillis
WESTBROOK, Oct. 24, 1996 – James Bennett did not have to wait long to get his feet wet. He moved his office belongings, after 10 years, from Old Orchard Beach to Westbrook on Monday. Wednesday morning he was meeting with Westbrook Police Cheif Bruce Roberts, trying to assess the damage done to one of Portland’s outlands. The city was hardest hit after this week’s flooding, primarily because the Presumscot River, the mighty corridor that fuels S.D. Warren, overflowed in several spots, closing roads and ripping down bridges.
The city administrator had some personal worries to deal with, as well. His family were reported to have been assisted from their condominium in the Old Orchard Beach area, and were flashed across the nation in USA Today, pictured as they were ferried to safety.
Problems throughout the town kept work crews busy all day. “Two major arteries are completely gone,” an officer at Westbrook Police Department dispatch said yesterday. “The Saco Street bridge and the Spring Street bridge are completely impassable.” Both bridges pass over the Stroudwater River. “Route 302 and East Bridge Street, where they meet over the Presumscot – that was amazing. The news had Dunkin’ Donuts submerged in water.” The dispatcher seemed an odd combination of public servant and voyeuristic gossip – both collecting and creating salient news. “The River Road was washed out. The bridge on Bridge Street is down to one lane,” she said. “It was a horror show.”
Perhaps one of the saddest stories to come from the flood of 1996 – the flood of the century we are told – involves the part-time animal control officer in Westbrook. The parallels to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark are obvious, and journalists have to avoid the temptation of making comparisons. (Forty days and nights is a mite worse than three days and two nights.) But the details become twisted as only this age is capable in the most recent retelling.
David Sparks, who is a licensed animal rehabilitator, lives eight feet from the Presumscot, on Rousseau Road in Windham. A few years ago, he had his house raised, three-and-half feet higher than the 100-year high flood level. For a century, no waters had risen within three and a half feet of his house bottom, and this led him to cancel his flood insurance.
Mr. Sparks owns a lot of his own animals. He takes in a lot of unwanted domestic animals, like ferrets, pot belly pigs, rabbits, mice, gerbils, snakes, iguanas… Animals that sound like nice pets when we buy them on a whim but then we’re unable to get used to them. Mr. Sparks takes them all in, and his wife, Paula, and his three children are plenty used to it.
He also owns a wildlife rehabilitation program. People bring him injured animals, and he nurses them back to health. Those he can’t re-release in the wilds, he keeps and uses for educational purposes in local schools. Just last week, this reporter used his services to take care of a skunk that had wound up in a “Have-a-Heart” trap intended for a too-friendly woodchuck that has burrowed beneath my West Buxton house. Mr. Sparks tranquilized the skunk and then took him off.
“I’ve taken in baby songbirds, deer hit by cars, I’ll take in anything. I never say no,” Mr. Sparks said Wednesday.
Much of Monday and Tuesday, however, Mr. Sparks was probably saying “No!” quite a bit, trying to deny the tragedy that was unfolding. His house was in the Presumpscot’s path as it whipped up over the banks.
“We lived here 23 years, and we know the river fairly well, he said. “We tried to stay one step ahead of the storm. One of the last things we did was lift stuff off the floor before we swam out into the yard.” His house swimming in five feet of standing water in some areas, his yard a swimming pool of animal pens and cages, Mr. Sparks and his son, Joshua, a senior at the University of Southern Maine, began the dangerous task of moving about the yard, trying to free the animals from their watery graves. They were able to save quite a few, but in the end, more than 75 animals were lost.
“We swam out of the house, my son and I, noosed animals – Pygmy goats, pigs – and brought them to higher ground. We’re on a frost wall, or post, so there’s no room for a basement. Because of that, we built a lot of sheds to house the animals. After a time trying to save them, we had to get inside; it was freezing and the water was cold. Some of the sheds had animals that I thought were up high enough, and they just weren’t. We lost owls, hawks… I released a gray squirrel, saved a woodchuck and a crow,” Mr. Sparks said. “We brought four trash cans full of animals to the curb to be picked up and cremated. And I filled another trash can tonight.”
For a man who takes in four to five hundred animals a year – two to three a day – seeing this devastation to the work of your lifetime must be crushing. And with no insurance to help put back the pieces, the Sparks family is in for tough times ahead.
“Westbrook police have been a big help. They made sure I had a dump truck, and offered me a storage unit. Andy’s Agway donated some food, disposable gloves, bleach… everyone’s been great,” Mr. Sparks said. “I’ve got two brothers – one in Rhode Island, one in Colorado – both offered to fly in and help. My son, Travis, is at (the University of Maine at) Orono, and he offered to come home. My daughter Trisha (a freshman at Windham High School) and all her friends were out picking up wood – we had about six cords, and we had to try to fence it in.”
Mr. Sparks has taken pictures of his property, so that if any relief is coming from FEMA, he might be eligible for some. Right now, he takes it one task at a time. He has salamanders, or kerosene heaters with blowers, and fans and day fires going all day to help dry out the house. And he will have to reinsulate the entire first floor. “We’ll get by somehow,” he says. “We’ll do what we have to to get by.”
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