Building Back: Two Years after Katrina

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, many coastal Louisiana horse owners said "enough's enough" and moved farther inland, while others stayed behind to reclaim their farms that were battered and drenched by the storm. Either way, most have moved on in their equestrian pursuits with a healthy awareness of what Nature can throw at them and a resolve that they'll be as prepared as they can be for "the next one," should it hit. This time two years ago, The Horse was just beginning to get word of how horses fared in the storm surge and the flooding. This week we spoke with several individuals involved in Katrina recovery, and we found more stories of resiliency and hope.

"It's really slow progress in the areas that were hit," said Leslie Talley, client care coordinator for LSU (Louisiana State University) Equine, who worked with many horse owners who fell victim to Katrina's effects. "Most just reestablished somewhere else. Once you do that for a year, you don't want to pull up and try to go back."

The horse community on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, where many of the New Orleans horse owners have set up shop after the storm, is booming. Allison Barca, DVM, a veterinarian who practices in New Orleans, said, "A lot of the barns have moved across the lake and are doing fantastic. There are big, beautiful farms. I thought that they'd lose all their business, but their clients have sold their homes in New Orleans and have moved so their kids can continue to take lessons."

Talley described the move inland as a smart one. "With the levees, and how it was questionable whether they'd be rebuilt to withstand another (Katrina-like storm), I can't blame them for not taking the chance," she said. "You don't know the levees are going to hold against a heavy rain, much less a hurricane."

Relocated owners mean fewer clients and more travel time for Barca. The Horse reported in 2006 that Barca added small animals to her formerly equine-specific practice to keep business going. "I am going to the north shore almost every day," she said. "People are scattered all over the place, and I now have a much larger range of farm calls than I ever had before. And we're pretty much a mixed practice, with as many dogs and cats as horses."

Louis Pomes

Louis Pomes of St. Bernard Parish works cattle with a new horse in April 2006. Pomes lost his horses and most of his cattle to Katrina's storm surge.

Among those remaining in storm-ravaged areas is Louis Pomes, a significant figure in the The Horse's coverage of post-Katrina recovery. Pomes stayed behind in St. Bernard Parish after losing all of his horses and most of his cattle, and he fed and watered others' surviving livestock and small animals in the weeks following the storm. The Racetrack Chaplaincy of America gave Pomes its White Horse Award in 2005 for his selfless acts. Talley described Pomes' progress: "It's taken him two years to clear the pastures of all the debris and to get his stock put back together. It's slow progress but a lot of the cattleman have been trying to get their stuff back together. The land is all they have, and they can't sell it, so they kind of have to make do with it."

Like many of the horse owners in the heavily impacted areas of coastal Louisiana, Pomes has decided to reside farther inland. He purchased a home in Slidell, La., and has been commuting to his farmland in St. Bernard, where he sometimes stays in a small house trailer. His ruined home still rests where the floodwaters haphazardly dropped it two years ago--thousands of feet off its foundation in the back of a pasture.

Talley said most of the places The Horse visited three weeks and six months after the storm appear the same. "Other than the cars (being gone from) the side of the road and the trash piles (removed), a lot of it still looks the same," said Talley. Silent, debris-filled barns still contain the now-skeletal remains of horses that perished in their stalls due to the rising waters. Most of the horse owners in the area didn't come back. "A lot of those places even now still don't have electricity and basic infrastructure--no sewer, water, and people are trying to rebuild in some of those areas, but it's really slow going. They're basically going to have to rebuild. Nothing there is usable."

Talley, Pomes, and others have been gathering the names of horse owners in Louisiana parishes and logging out-of-state emergency contacts so they can be reached in the event of a storm that wipes out phones. Individuals in each parish have been designated as contacts for emergency response. The Louisiana State Animal Response Team has held training/staging days designed to prepare volunteers for emergencies. "They train for one day and the next day is a live response," Talley said. "We get 'rescued animals' set up in a shelter with identification, and get the volunteers practiced in what they'd actually have to do," if such an emergency were to occur.

A brochure and equine emergency planner packet is available at LSU Equine for clients who come through the hospital, and many were mailed out to horse owners in areas at risk for hurricane damage. "There's a flip chart with emergency phone numbers and blank spaces for filling in their own parish animal control," Talley explained. "There's an emergency phone list, a personal emergency phone list, and a whole listing of what they need to take care of ... from the evacuation plan, things to think about and follow, and how to 'shelter in place.' In other words, if they can't get out, what they should do to ensure the best outcome in their situation."

Another Challenge

While coastal Louisiana has been spared by major hurricanes so far this year, area horse owners have been encountering another kind of problem: Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). The vectors of the disease, mosquitoes, are plentiful, and many horses are unprotected.

"It's just so simple--they're not vaccinating," said Barca. She said she hears of about one presumed EEE case per day, on average. In storm-affected areas where horse owners did not uproot, many horses haven't been vaccinated since the days following Katrina, when widespread free vaccinations were given to avoid mosquito-borne illness. Barca said cases of encephalitis are so widespread that when owners recognize clinical signs of EEE (usually neurologic disease), some don't even want to have the veterinarian out. "People are just shooting the horses."

Barca said in the places where people are vaccinating, they are protecting their horses against West Nile virus (WNV, also a mosquito-borne disease) with the one-shot primer vaccine, assuming that they've shielded the horse against EEE too. While combination vaccines protecting against both diseases exist, she said many owners are unwilling to spend the extra money to get the combination vaccines.

Another complicating factor is what she considers a confusing reporting system. "We report EEE like we're supposed to (to the Department of Agriculture), and nothing happens," Barca said. "Our instructions are go to our state vet, and that's what we do if we have a horse that appears to have EEE. They want us to pay for testing, and if we get a suspect, it's $60 (which she categorized as prohibitive both to the horse owner and her practice). But if I don't have proof that it's a confirmed EEE case, it doesn't count," meaning the case won't be considered in the official case count, and the risk of contracting EEE is perceived as low, when it's really a threat. She's hopeful that owners will begin to realize the danger of EEE and that public health officials will respond with more mosquito spraying.

It isn't all doom and gloom, though, Barca stressed. Despite the frustrating run-ins with encephalitic disease, she's seen many encouraging comebacks in the past two years. The New Orleans Police Department Mounted Patrol renovated their stable in City Park on their own time and they have been up and operating at full capacity, she said. A barn in Audobon Park, Cascades Stable, has been rebuilt from the ground up, and it's bustling with activity.

Another example of a farm that's chosen to stick around in the Big Easy is Equest Farm, which is based at City Park Stables. "City Park is still doing well," Talley said, "she (Leslie Kramer) had such a splendid contingency plan, she got everybody out." Most of the farms that are operating in New Orleans now have such plans for getting their animals to safety when storms threaten.

Poydras Arena in St. Bernard (the home of Little Man, the Miniature Horse who survived the rising floodwaters by standing on the roof of his barn) is again operating, and a stable in Belle Chase, La., is being built back, stall by stall, as boarders show interest. The owner of this farm "couldn't get any financial help at all," said Barca. "But he's gotten pretty far. People who want to come in--he gets a stall built. He's coming back pretty rapid-fire."

In addition, riders have returned to shows in the area--a big jumper show returned to the Harrison County Fairgrounds in nearby coastal Mississippi, and drew a large crowd.

Among Barca's Katrina patients that are still in New Orleans is Molly, the pony attacked by a pit bull in the weeks following the hurricane. Molly is thriving and is now on her fourth prosthetic leg. "Her stump keeps changing," she said. "She gets new limbs all the time."

Barca stressed that if you compare today's picture to what the horse industry used to be in New Orleans, it can seem disappointing or bleak. But she is constantly encouraged by the clients that she sees working toward what people have called coastal Lousiana's "new normal." She said, "When you look at specifics like these--the stories of people building back--that's all really, really good. "

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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