A pair of Alaska teachers needed good news after they lost nearly all their possessions when their house collapsed into a river swollen by a glacial-outburst flood and their cat went missing.
Elizabeth Wilkins was holding onto hope that if any animal would survive the house falling into the Mendenhall River on Aug. 5, it would be Leo, the couple’s resilient, big-eyed, black-and-white cat who shows no fear of bears.
“I knew that he’s pretty smart, and so I felt pretty confident that he would escape and be OK somewhere,” she said.
That faith paid off 26 days after the flood when Tonya Mead posted a photo of Leo to the Juneau Community Collective Facebook page. Wilkins immediately knew it was Leo, the “COVID kitten” they rescued in 2020. She rushed to meet Mead.
“I just started walking down the street calling for him, and he just ran out and was like, ‘Oh hey, here I am, you know, like, where have you been?’ ” she said.
The river flooding was caused by a major release of water from Suicide Basin, a Mendenhall Glacier -dammed lake in Juneau that eroded the river bank.
Wilkens and her partner, Tom Schwartz, moved into the home shortly before the flood hit but were away on a mountain biking trip to Bend, Oregon.
Friends called and sent videos, warning their house was in danger of being washed away.
Ultimately, several homes were destroyed or partially destroyed, with others condemned or flooded. None of the destruction was as famous as the house being rented by Wilkins and Schwartz, with video of it collapsing into the river going viral.
The couple returned to Juneau three days later to sort out new living arrangements and look for Leo.
They returned to the site of the house, calling out Leo’s name and leaving food for him in the chicken coop.
By then, it seemed like everyone in Juneau was looking for him. There were plenty of sightings of Leo, but Wilkins said it appears that there are just many black-and-white unhoused cats in Juneau.
When he did turn up, he appeared to be in good health.
“Leo was a little thinner, but otherwise totally fine,” Wilkins said. “He ate four cans of tuna and went outside to kill a mouse. I imagine that is how he survived.”
She said it’s amazing to have Leo back, though he’s currently staying with a friend while they look for another place to live.
“It’s super joyful because everyone in their community was looking for him, and it’s nice to have some good news,” she said.
And just like Leo, some of their other possessions are finding their way back to them, but not in as good of condition as the cat.
“People have been finding some things, like some of our clothes and pictures were in 4 feet of silt in someone’s yard down the Mendenhall River,” Wilkins said.