Louis Pomes: Standing Strong in St. Bernard

"When the water started coming in, I know it was the one we'd been waiting for," recalled Louis Pomes quietly, leaning against his truck and surveying his battered lifelong hometown of St. Bernard Parish, La. He had been expecting a colossal storm like Hurricane Katrina for most of his adult life, but the storm was even more devastating than anyone could have predicted. "The water was coming up quick--it came up like seven feet in 15 minutes." See photos here.

Pomes (PO-mez), 43, is a dedicated livestock owner who has worked for the parish government's Department of Public Works and the Sheriff's office for 23 years. Regardless of his reluctance to accept any credit and despite his own devastating losses, Hurricane Katrina made Pomes a rescuer, a helper, and a hero to countless parish residents and horse owners.

At about 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, after calling fellow employees in the front office of the Public Works building and not receiving a response, Pomes struggled to get to the building to check on his co-workers.

"Water had just started rushing in the office, so they ran up to the second floor," he said. "The roof blew off the third floor, and they had no choice but to come back down. And by the time they came back down, they was in water up to their chest."

He helped them steer around to the back of the building and move up to the second floor of the rear part of the office structure, which was an old incinerator building.

Pomes said the walls "had to be at least a foot thick with concrete. It wasn't so much the cracking that you heard (when the storm surge hit the building) that was frightening, as when (parts of it) fell…it was like chunks, when nine-inch pieces of cement fall from 15 feet above your head, it makes a nice little sound…I was like, 'I'm hoping this building holds up.' "

There on a loft-type balcony where Pomes and his colleagues could keep an eye on the storm, "We had a very good view of the storm coming in, very good," he said.

After two long, sleepless nights, Pomes and his colleagues were rescued. Pomes then joined other parish workers, St. Bernard firefighters, Sheriff's department employees, and civilians in trying to find survivors. Many of the workers and civilians were commercial fishermen who were very experienced with boats.

Surveying the Damage

The flooding was incredible, unlike anything Pomes had ever seen. "Fifty-six miles of levee surrounds our parish, like a big ol' bowl waiting to be filled up. It only took a couple of hours for it to fill up, and it'll take a couple of weeks to get the water out."

Pomes and the rescuers first focused on getting to people in the Arabi and Chalmette areas of St. Bernard. "We actually took boats off the roofs of houses to go rescue people," Pomes described. "If I found one floating, and mine ran out of gas, I hotwired it and took that one and let mine go. We launched boats off the roofs of houses that was still strapped to the trailer.

"One of the boats, I'll never forget the name of it, the boat's name was 'My Wife's New Car,' a very nice boat," Pomes said of one vessel rescuers found and used in Arabi. "Whatever woman sacrificed her new car for that boat, she saved a lot of lives."

Dates and time spans are cloudy for Pomes and others involved in rescue missions in storm- and flood-ravaged areas of St. Bernard. The rescue of people came first, but "if someone was on the roof of their house holding a cat or dog or whatever, the cat and dog came with them," Pomes said emphatically. "They was in enough stress as it was…we didn't want to make them leave their pets back."

While searching for more survivors in his boat, Pomes heard someone faintly yelling for help. Once he pinpointed the source of the voice, he had to use an axe to break into an attic and lift that person to safety. He said rescuing people was emotionally rewarding in a time when everything was bleak.

He and the other rescuers survived by nabbing floating bottles of water that escaped from the local Wal-Mart, and by grabbing any packaged food they found floating.

Pomes didn't fault FEMA and other governmental authorities, whom he says were overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the disaster. "I guess I felt (relief) was a little bit slow, you know, before FEMA got to us or before we had National Guard down here, but they did a tremendous job once they got here."

Days passed before Pomes could reach his own 100-acre property. He passed a familiar cemetery on the way to his home: A vault dislodged from its mausoleum had floated across the submerged street and come to rest on the porch in front of a church's front doors. He found his own property covered with nine feet of water. His house had been lifted off its foundation and moved 2,000 feet into the back of one pasture.

Most devastating was the sight of his animals. "I had 26 horses (mostly Paints) and close to 200 cattle (before the storm)," he said, his eyes reflecting the deep sadness of the memory. "The animals had it rough…they had it real rough. I know my cattle was in water for days standing in belly-deep, some of them trapped on little small hills. My horses, they didn't have a shot, I never found one out of 26 alive."

None of his horses were found drowned in stalls, as was the fate of many horses throughout St. Bernard Parish. "I think the ones that was in stalls swam over (the doors)," he explained, but "the water was just too deep. Once they got over them doors, they couldn't find a place to set their feet…couldn't find a place. Not a one made it.

"I had some very good horses, really nice bloodlines," Pomes added, the stress showing. "I think my oldest one was like 22, and I had a Quarter Horse, she was 28. I said I was going to keep her 'til the day she died…I did."

Seventy of Pomes' cattle survived, but even so, several had to be euthanatized. One cow had been tangled in phone lines and had developed gangrene, and a veterinarian recommended euthanasia. "I had a friend of mine shoot it, I couldn't do it," Pomes said solemnly. "I let somebody else take care of that part. She was really down…there was no healing her."

Despite his own loss and his surviving animals' dire circumstances, Pomes set to work feeding and watering surviving livestock in his parish, and helped lead rescue teams organized by Louisiana State University veterinarians to horses and ponies that needed to be taken to safety.

Since he lost all of his trucks to Katrina, Pomes had to commandeer vehicles. (The truck bed of one of the vehicles was still full of five-gallon water jugs, like those found on office water coolers, when we traveled with him to his farm on Sept. 20.)

Throughout the days following the hurricane, Pomes scaled the levee on the east side of the Mississippi River, filling up each five-gallon bottle with clean river water and loading it into his truck to take it to the livestock. He used everything from ice chests he had found floating to plastic wading pools as water troughs for the animals. Hard hats were used to water dogs.

"Every animal I see on the highway, I pull over and give them water--horses, cows, dogs," Pomes said. "I have dog food in the back of the truck. I was carrying hay and feed around until we got all the horses out."

By feeding and watering animals in the same locations every day, it made it easier for rescuers to catch the horses and load them on trailers once they could get into the parish. Pomes, with whatever help he could find, managed to separate some of the stallions in the Parish.

"Them horses were very stressed out; very stressed," Pomes stated. "It was like some of them horses that you couldn't put a halter on them if you wanted to (in normal times), would walk to you and stick their head in one. They was ready to go; they definitely wanted out of here. They was desperate. That fresh water…it was like giving them candy, dumping that bucket of water."

Since then, the water plant has been fixed, but Pomes still uses the jugs to move water from the plant to areas still housing animals.

Pomes also helped direct rescuers to several hundred horses that were hauled to safety at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center staging area in Gonzales, La., where they could be monitored by veterinarians and claimed by their evacuated owners.

Not every rescue attempt had a happy ending; Pomes had one experience in the weeks following Katrina that is deeply imprinted on his mind. St. Bernard resident Anna Marie Coble had a black and white Paint that she moved out to safety on the Violet Bridge during the storm (her other horse was washed away in the storm surge). "She was going to feed him every day and give him water," Pomes stated. "When Miss Anna came into town to go pick up her horse, we went back there and someone shot it. It was very uncalled for, whoever shot that horse.

"That is a lady that put more riding time on horses than any cowboy, any cowgirl you can imagine," he continued. "She's the sweetest thing in the world, she'll do anything in the world for an animal. She'd probably mortgage her house to help an animal. I really didn't want to bring her over there to the bridge to check on her horse because I heard the horse was dead, but she insisted. You could see the hole in the center of the horse's head and blood all over the place, it was sad. And the horse never had a scratch on him. He was healthy."

Building Back

Reportedly, St. Bernard Parish was bankrupt by Sept. 20. The parish was supported by tax revenues, and since it is nearly void of activity, there is no business or residents left to pay the bills. Pomes' daughter and grandson have moved to Las Vegas to pursue work, and his two stepdaughters have had to move to a new place to find jobs. Pomes is trying to help support them and his father (who was evacuated after the storm).

"You've got to feed them, you have to keep them going," Pomes said, although he hasn't seen a paycheck in a month.

"I think it's going to be a long time before St. Bernard bounces back, a very long time," Pomes stated sadly. "I really believe that it's a lot of work ahead of us…so much destroyed, you know? It took people so many years to get all this stuff, and the storm took a lot of fight out of 'em. I don't think they have what it takes to get their things back together. They're wore out."

To compound the problem, the local oil refinery developed a leak, which has rendered a portion of the parish uninhabitable.
Pomes said the majority of St. Bernard Parish horse owners won't be able to afford to board a horse somewhere off-site while rebuilding their homes and lives. "So I think the horse business around this parish is going to be over with for awhile," he said. "I really believe that."

Every mile of his five-strand wire fencing was destroyed, ironically after he had replaced it this spring in order to renew his livestock insurance. "I hate to even look at my place, it's like a junkyard," Pomes said. "Soon as I get some time, I'm going to get a bulldozer and clean up. Don't ever let anyone convince you that you don't need flood insurance. I never thought I'd have water like that…Not a nickel's worth of flood insurance and nine feet of water.

"If I live on top of a mountain, I'm going to buy flood insurance," he added.

But Louis Pomes isn't going anywhere.

"If I have to live in my tent or have to live in my horse barn, I'm staying," Pomes stated emphatically. "I have 100 acres. I actually manage 400 acres, but I own 100 acres of my own. The 400 acres I have where I have my cattle at, I'm going to re-fence it and try to get my cattle business going again, and maybe get me another horse or two."

Pomes is showering in a cruise ship that's docked in the Mississippi River and has been made available to local officials. The air conditioning isn't working in the belly of the boat, so he's content to sleep in his truck at night.

Every hour of his day is spent serving the community right now, so he's not sure when he's going to get around to rebuilding his own farm. "I have so many responsibilities of taking care of other people," he explained. "You don't want to let them down, and you do whatever you can do for them. Then I have my job, it's required that I stay during the hurricanes and people know that. Since this storm blew through, I've had more farm calls (about people wanting him to check on their animals). How do you tell people your dog didn't make it? It's sad. It really is.

"I see more tears for this storm than you see at a funeral or a wake," Pomes said. "I'm telling you, you see people crying when they have to put their poor animal down and walk off. It's like putting one of their kids down."

Pomes relies on the hope that his remaining cattle will pull through--that the ones he's still nursing will return to health, and that he'll have enough feed and hay to get through this winter.

"I'm hoping we're going to get a nice little shower before the first frost comes, to where the grass does have a chance to get up maybe an inch or so," he said. "Then after the frost hits we'll worry about getting hay and stuff down here. There's no one even close to this parish with hay."

He is thankful for the hay and feed that volunteers have provided thus far and was uplifted to hear that he might receive help replanting his grass--all of his pasture was destroyed by the brackish muck that sludged over his property for weeks.

"I don't have a piece of tack left," Pomes said. "I found my roping saddle, and I don't think it's worth fooling with. I'm going to try and pressure wash it and see what I can do with it. It was hanging in my barn, and you seen what my barn looked like and my saddles were in there."

Pomes learned that someone was giving him a Paint yearling to raise, and his face lit up when he spoke of it. "One horse, I think I can handle that," he said. "I'll get me some tack together for one animal. I'm going to try anyway. I have to have a horse--it's in my blood--I have to have one."

Editor's note: Louis Pomes is a nominee for the third annual White Horse Award, given by the Race Track Chaplaincy of America each year to an individual who has performed a heroic act on behalf of human or horse.

If you are interested in assisting Pomes financially, please e-mail rfilkins@TheHorse.com.

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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