Reflecting on Katrina: A New Orleans Vet's Perspective

"It's just so amazing to me that in one day, it can all be lost and suddenly you live in a dangerous place," said Allison Barca, DVM, who has served many of the equines in and around New Orleans for years. Barca's home is just north of New Orleans in Harahan, La., and most of her clients were in some way affected by the hurricanes. Since the storm, she said she's been living a sort of hell, seeing clients each day who have lost family, horses, and homes to the hurricane, and identifying dead horses so their owners can have closure.

Photos Courtesy Leslie Talley

The day of the storm Barca began calling everyone she knew in the affected areas. She was surprised the barn phone still worked at Denny Stables--a barn her grandfather built 50 years ago next to the levee in upper New Orleans that is now the boarding stable she runs. "We were able to talk to this one guy who stayed behind who would fill us in on what was going on at our stable," Barca said. "Looting started within 24 hours of the storm, and it became so bad he had to go away or he'd (have been) killed."

Denny Stables had survived Hurricanes Betsy and Camille, and it stood strong through Katrina. "Three blocks away from here, you needed a boat," she said after returning to the stable.

Others weren't so fortunate. Barca was only able to get through on the phone to one person she knew in St. Bernard Parish immediately following the storm, and what she heard terrified her.

"Phil Deogracias was on top of a roof, screaming, 'Bodies are floating past me! They're caught up in trees, everything's dead!' " she said. "He was hysterical and screaming. That was the only contact I got out of there" for several days. Barca said she was like the rest of the world, learning only what she could about the damage from Fox News and CNN reports.

Photos Courtesy Leslie Talley

Later, Barca was able to confirm for herself that the St. Bernard Parish area was decimated. "Some got out alive with their horses, others left their horses there and thought it would be OK," she said. "People are used to letting their horses out and they would go to safety on the levees, but the storm surge just wiped over the levees and the horses just swam and swam (and had nowhere to set their feet). These people had to watch it happen, and they are just devastated."

There were some happy stories that emerged from that area, however. One miniature chestnut stallion named Little Man was found in his stable at the Poydras Arena in St. Bernard as the waters were coming up. "He was on his hind legs, screaming bloody murder," she said. "He would go under water and then come back up again, fighting." His rescuers put him and another two minis into a doublewide trailer where they waited until rescuers took them to safety. All of the horses from Poydras Arena survived.

Every Thursday and Friday Barca used to visit patients in St. Bernard Parish. Now there aren't very many horses left--they were either rescued and are now in other areas of the state or country, or they drowned in the storm surge or flooding. "That's a day and a half of my week vanished," Barca described. "We were literally looking for something to do today (Nov. 3)."

It's been an adjustment for the energetic veterinarian who kept a full schedule.

Barca, her family, and horses were fortunate to have evacuated before Katrina hit. They stayed several hours inland from New Orleans in St. Francisville. Barca said she felt stabs of guilt knowing her clients were being pummeled by Katrina while she was safe. "Our horses were grazing in beautiful pastures, and the world was falling apart just two hours away," she said.

Barca says every single barn in the Katrina-affected areas requires some kind repair, either from wind damage or flooding. But even some barns that withstood Katrina weren't saved. She told of the L&G Equestrian Center in St. Rose, La. (near the East Bank of the Mississippi River), that leases property from the Parish water board. Following the hurricane, the stable's land was taken over by the government to establish a command post. "They were literally run off," describes Barca, "FEMA trailers are standing there now, and they're bulldozing over four stables on this property and a big arena after they (the Equestrian Center's operators) put about $25,000 into improving the grounds and footing.

"What the storm didn't do, they (the government) did," Barca added.

Identifying Horses

Since many of her clients were hoping their animals might have survived the storm and flooding, Barca took on the grim task of going back into storm-ravaged areas to identify clients' horses that perished in the flooding. "Fortunately, we have a lot of microchipping here in Louisiana, and I could tell you who the corpse was in a heartbeat--if the horse was tattooed or branded that made it more difficult (because of decomposition)."

It was expected that equine carcasses would be found in stalls, caught in fences, or out in the marshlands. But the horses' impromptu final resting places weren't always expected.

"We received reports that horses were lying in people's offices," she said. After hearing these reports about a month after Katrina, Barca and others assisting her investigated the rubble of one Chalmette, La. (in St. Bernard), business that was missing a back wall. A horse had apparently gotten something caught around his neck which, when the water was high (and quite possibly after he drowned), had become connected to a hook that was in the rafters of the building, effectively leaving the horse's body hanging from the ceiling.

"It was like a bad horror flick," she described. "Our eyes were about level with his stomach. We knew the horse, and we couldn't get him down. We didn't know how to try ... it's hard to explain how slippery it is (around a decaying carcass). We had to leave him there, which just felt so disrespectful."

On a brighter note, Barca was able to help confirm identification of many live horses. Even while the microchipping sped up the identification process in a lot of cases, Barca said many horse owners had not registered their horse with the microchip companies, which hindered the identification process. Some owners lost records of their microchip numbers in the storm. The microchips often could only be linked to the veterinarian who implanted them (rather than an owner), so if an individual tried to claim a horse at the evacuation center, the veterinarian who registered the chip typically could match or confirm the identification by checking in the horse's file.

"As it stood, you could only identify the vet who put the chips in," she said. "Otherwise, we couldn't help them. It's not so good, but it also taught us a big lesson of registering with the company."

A microchip can help iron out confusion in situations such as one Barca experienced when an owner's description of the horse didn't match the horse's actual color. "There was one horse--a little sorrel stallion--with a really bad eye infection that ended up in the hospital (at Louisiana State University)," she described. "He looked familiar to me, and an owner called me and was looking for his bay stallion and wanted to confirm a microchip. This guy just didn't know his colors, and without the microchip, I would've just been looking for a bay horse."

Continued Post-Katrina Problems

Two months after the storm, Barca continues checking reports of horses needing care in affected areas, and she helps confirm truths and dispel rumors about remaining animals--living and dead--that arise on the Internet regularly.

"Plaquemines (Parish) definitely has dead horses in trees and dead cows on the side of the road," she said. "Yes, there are some very thin animals just sort of standing beside the road, but if you go to try and catch them, they run." The marshland limits the efforts of rescuers, because often when they try to catch the animals, they run into areas that cannot be reached.

"All they can do is try to feed them," Barca continued, adding that she doesn't know how many horses remain, but that it's not very many. Rescuers cannot use tranquilizer darts to capture the horses because when the animal falls, its head will be under water.

"In your effort to help these animals, you're killing them," she said. "Some horses in Plaquemines are as wild as mustangs."

While the bulk of equine rescues ended weeks ago, there are small animal rescue stragglers. Barca continues to deal with the frustration of finding her cats "rescued" from her barn by "animal relief" groups. "We go there three times a day," she says incredulously, wondering how individuals can assume the cats aren't receiving care. One of Barca's neighbors (a veterinarian, her associate in the veterinary practice) had a lock on her gate, which prevented rescuers from taking her dog that she was caring for, but it didn't stop them from dumping an entire bag of dog food over the fence. The dog requires a special diet because of pancreatitis, so irreparable damage was caused by the rescuers' act.

Building Back

Barca said when agricultural loss figures were determined for hurricane-affected areas, the horse industry wasn't included. She said many horse owners who are wealthy enough to rebuild and keep their horses have packed up and moved to places such as Denver and Houston. "Every day I spend time filling out health certificates for another one of my clients to leave the state," she said.

Others say they're coming back in January, when local schools reopen, but Barca keeps getting phone calls from families that have settled into new areas and decided they're not coming back.

To complicate matters, it is unlikely that many barns in New Orleans that were lost can be rebuilt because of a moratorium on building stables. And like L&G Equestrian Center, some stables were based on leased land the owner might decide could be better used for something else.

"Every time we lose a stable, we lose it forever," Barca said. "You can't just rebuild nearby, you have to go three hours away from here.

"I don't believe in my heart that St. Bernard will come back (to the horse industry it once was)," Barca continued. "It still takes the main city to feed these little extra-curricular areas, and people have to have jobs to support their hobby. They can't have them (horses) unless they have a good job."

Regardless of the major drop in her clientele, Barca says she will stay. "I want to be here to see it (New Orleans) come back, but I have this fear that it won't come back," she said. "If they build it back right, if they do a big job and don' t let politics get in the way, if the federal government really helps, people with higher incomes will move to this area and typically those individuals like to ride.

"I don't think I can move, everything we have is here," she continued. "I will stay here for the rest of the horses that are here. There's a lot of interest (in the industry) on the north shore (of Lake Ponchartrain), but it takes so long to get there (because of new traffic patterns) that I'm scared. I think I'm going to lose all those clients because they can wait for me for three hours, or wait for the other guy for 10 minutes. But I'm not turning my back. I have had to become a mixed animal practitioner to stay afloat."

Before Katrina, Barca's business was 10% small animal. She "kept her hands in the small animal pie" in case she was ever injured by a horse and was only able to care for small animals. "People are starving for small animal vets, so I'm using that to keep my horse practice afloat, and we're going to see what happens."

She thinks it will take the interest of non-horse people to help the impacted horse industry rebuild. "Nobody (non-horse people) seems to think this is anything to worry about--it's just a hobby--like, 'Oh, I'm sorry your craft store just got crunched.' The horse people alone cannot do it. They need to be treated like any other business.

"Yes, we have a lot of pet horses and people that just ride," Barca explained. "Our barn is that kind of a barn. They ride every day, and if they can't have their horses in this city, they won't stay here. I don't know if our government realizes it, but there are whole families moving because one of the kids rides."

Keeping Sane

Coming face-to-face every day with clients who have endured tremendous losses is tough on Barca, and she finds her attitude about the future dependant on the people she meets each day. If owners are wringing their hands, sobbing, and saying the Big Easy will never come back, she goes home with a dark cloud over her head. If they are positive about the perseverance of the city, her optimism increases.

"Frankly, I don't know what's going to happen," she said "In a way, I can't see why they're going to build it back, because it's so obviously a magnet for disasters.

"I have been hearing about this ("The Big Storm") my whole life," she continued. "Some people say this is the 100-year storm and we won't see another one for another 100 years. I don't believe that; I think it's going to happen again. Why should they build more levees for something that's going to fill up with water?"

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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