While residents scrambled to flee floods in Texas, Gary Saurage had no choice but to stay behind and care for the 350 alligators and crocodiles that depended on him.
“I couldn’t just get on a rescue helicopter and leave, or put them on there with me. I had to stay and fight the fight for these guys,” said Mr Saurage, owner of Gator Country rescue centre in Beaumont. “My home, my things: underwater. Everything we have: gone. But I have a responsibility to keep my animals contained. I couldn’t give up.” The 15-acre visitor attraction, which provides a home to “nuisance” reptiles that would otherwise have been destroyed after being discovered in residential and public areas, is in a low-lying area and was quickly flooded when Hurricane Harvey swept through last week. The storm devastated the fishing town of Rockport, where it made landfall as a hurricane, and inundated communities such as Beaumont, home to 118,000 people, by swelling streams, rivers and bayous with record amounts of rain.
The death toll stands at 50, including a six-month-old baby swept from its parents’ arms by floodwaters in New Waverly, north of Houston. President Trump and his wife Melania visited victims in Houston and in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Saturday. More than 400,000 people have registered for federal aid.
Forecasters are keeping a close eye on another hurricane, Irma, that is heading westwards across the Atlantic, though it is too early to determine whether it will make landfall, or where.
“It’s been a war zone here. I’ve never seen devastation like this,” said Mr Saurage, 48, who watched in despair as the water rose to less than a foot from the top of his alligators’ pens last week. “A few more inches, they could be swimming out.”
He and his crew gathered up non- native Nile crocodiles and the smaller creatures that could be secured such as venomous snakes and moved them to higher ground.
His two celebrity alligators — Big Al, measuring 13ft 4in, and Big Tex, at 13ft 11in the largest nuisance alligator captured alive in the US — were also at risk. Using ropes and a lot of muscle, Mr Saurage’s team wrangled them into trucks.
“We have a 35ft travel trailer that we use to take animals to shows and it has a lock-in section, so I put Big Tex in that part. I put him in through a big door at the back and locked it,” said Mr Saurage. “But there’s another door in front that leads into the living compartment. I guess he got tired of being in there so he bust off all the bolts, broke the door off its hinges, and went right on through.”
The 900lb alligator was found on a bed, in a nook 6ft above the floor of the motorhome. “He threw everything off the bed and made himself at home,” said Mr Saurage. “I didn’t argue.”
Surrounded by water, Mr Saurage and his team have been keeping an eye on the rest of the alligators around the clock. “It’s so tiring. Every night we patrol — two boats going round the entire park looking for anything that’s got out. Alligator eyes are reflective at night, so we see them real easy,” he said.
He estimates that up to six million alligator eggs may have been destroyed across Texas and Louisiana; a loss that will affect the population for years to come.
His property was cut off to all but boat access, but local residents have pushed through the floodwaters to bring spoilt meat from their waterlogged refrigerators to feed the reptiles. Mr Saurage said: “Pork chops, rib-eye steaks, lamb cutlets — those alligators are sure eating good.”