Animal Rescue--Two Weeks in Mississippi

Tomas Gimenez, Dr.Med.Vet, is a professor of animal and veterinary sciences at Clemson University, an instructor in emergency and disaster planning and rescue (along with his wife, Rebecca, PhD, a Major in the US Army Reserves mobilized to Active Duty this year), and a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Veterinary Medical Assistance Team 2 (VMAT-2) that was deployed under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He is also new dog owner. "Tupelo" traveled home from Mississippi to South Carolina with Gimenez as a happy example of one of the many stories of animals saved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. See Tupelo and other Mississippi rescue photos here.

"We were searching for animals one day and ran into the Tupelo, Miss., Rescue Squad doing house-to-house searches (for people and animals)," said Gimenez. The rescue squad and police noticed there appeared to be mud that was moving just as we (the VMAT-2 team) pulled up. This poor dog was buried in mud and wrapped in power lines, but he was alive. There's no way to know how many days he'd been there; he was skin and bones. Between police officers and rescue workers and us, we put in quite a bit of time with our water bottles and gave him a bath and took him in. Everyone got pretty attached to that dog.

"I ended up adopting him and brought him home," said Gimenez. "His name is Tupelo.  We will be searching the Internet lost and found pet sites to see if we can find his true owners, meanwhile he is getting his injuries (pierced prepuce, lacerations) and starvation treated.  If we never find his owners, he will have a good home with us on our farm."

VMAT-2 At The Ready

As a professor at Clemson University, Gimenez works in the animal and veterinary science departments. He teaches equine management, equine theriogenology (reproduction), and endocrinology, but about 60% of his time is devoted to working on area of horses in disasters and accidents. He gives training in technical aspects of large animal emergency rescue.

Gimenez became involved in emergency large animal rescue about 12 years ago after attending a seminar on horses in disaster with the South Carolina assistant state veterinarian. The conference was put on by Richard Mansmann, VMD, PhD, of Central Carolina Equine Practice in Chapel Hill, N.C. "We thought it would be a good idea to do something about that in South Carolina," recalled Gimenez. "We wanted to try to educate horse owners and emergency responders in what to do when large animals get involved in emergencies or disasters. That's how I started. It's evolved from there."

Gimenez and his wife have been teaching a large animal rescue course for about 10 years. He said it started as one-day presentation, and now it is a three-day, hands-on class.

Asked how he got involved with the medical assistance teams, Gimenez said, "I knew of the VMATs existence for a few years, and I just thought it would be a good thing to do since I was working in that area. My wife and I have been members of VMAT for five years now."

He said his team was previously deployed to assist in the avian influenza outbreak in Virginia. He said the team's job was essentially surveillance and working with the local poultry farms to prevent spread of the virus.

At the end of July, the entire team attended a Field Training Exercise in conjunction with their military compatriots on the Special Medical Assistance Team--Veterinary (SMART-V) at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Their mock scenario included actual decontamination of live "police" horses and military working dogs (see photos and article on this training at

Duty Calls: Hurricane Katrina

Then came Hurricane Katrina. Gimenez said his VMAT-2 team was on call for August, and he happened to be on the deployment list of 21 for the first two-week rotation of deployment (out of 60 team members). That meant he was one of the first animal rescuers into the hurricane-stricken area of Mississippi. The teams usually have four to five equine veterinarians, six to seven small animal veterinarians, and a dozen or so vet techs and support personnel.

Here's how it works, according to Gimenez: "FEMA activates you, and you become a federal employee. In this case we all went to Atlanta and met; we flew in from all different states, but mostly Mid-Atlantic states. We took rental vans to Anniston, Ala., where FEMA has their Southeastern headquarters. From there we loaded vans with supplies and food and water and drove to Biloxi, Miss. We got there about three days after the hurricane."

The VMAT's mission is: "To support the local veterinary community in whatever way necessary to help it to resume its normal support of the community. VMAT has the capability of setting up a full field hospital, and they can provide medical care for pets, search and rescue dogs, livestock, wildlife, and even zoo animals if the need arises. The teams may also be activated to assist with food safety concerns, zoonotic disease, terrorist events, and toxicological problems."

The AVMA explains how the teams work: "VMATs are the only response teams recognized in the National Response Plan that provide veterinary medical treatment and address animal and public health issues resulting from natural, man-made, or any other type of disasters. VMATs are available to assist the USDA in the control, treatment, and eradication of animal disease outbreaks. VMATs must receive an invitation from the affected state in order to be deployed. The local governor may make a disaster declaration and submit a request for federal assistance. If the President then declares a disaster, federal resources are made available. It is at this point that a request for VMAT assistance can be made. If a state alone requests a VMAT, they will need to fund the response. If a Federal Disaster is declared, the Federal Government covers a large part of the cost."

Each VMAT team consists of large and small animal veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Specialists can be added as needed. They treat all domestic animals, including cats, dogs, horses, cows, pigs, and birds; anything that people keep as pets.

The VMATs are an AVMA program until deployment, at which time the members become temporary federal employees of the Department of Homeland Security. It should be noted that if it weren't for the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) monies that support VMATs, the teams would not have had the supplies they needed to respond after Hurricane Katrina.

To support VMATs, animals, and veterinarians affected by this disaster, donations can be made online at The AVMA is matching up to $500,000 in donations.

Arriving in Mississippi

When VMAT-2 arrived in Mississippi, all FEMA workers were based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. The Air Force base made room for FEMA personnel, said Gimenez. "We went there to sleep," he explained. "We'd go out on missions every day and spend night at the Air Force base.

"By time we got there, there was still a lot of damage, but the roads had been mostly cleared so you could drive around," reported Gimenez. "They'd been cleared except for Highway 90 that was closed right on the beach."

Gimenez said his team had six vans with supplies and personnel, and during the first days they split the groups into assessment teams that worked by grids. "We covered pretty much the coast of Mississippi from Biloxi to the Louisiana state line," Gimenez said. "We took a map and divided it into sections and started covering different areas every day to determine animal issues and who needed assistance."

Gimenez said there were quite a few people remaining, except in those parts of the towns where neighborhoods were wiped out. "They were non-inhabited," he said.

"Before we went to find out what kind of animal problems there were, the urban search and rescue teams had done a search of houses to look for human victims," Gimenez recalled. "When they found animals alive or dead, they let us know, and we would go assist.

"We also had list of vet clinics on coast of Mississippi," he said, adding that they created the list from local phone books. "We made a point to visit every clinic to get information on what happened to the vets and animals. Were there any live animals left? From those different sources of information we started finding out where live animals were that need assistance and food and water, and where there were dead animals. We also had a list of animal shelters made up the same way. There were some good stories and some sad stories."

Without going into detail, Gimenez said it was sad that in many cases, people left animals behind--dogs and cats--in animal shelters near the coast. "Our work consisted many times of recovering dead animals," he reported. Much of their decontamination practice a month before at the Field Training Exercise came in handy--having to put on protective gear and breathing apparatus to go into animal facilities and bring out body bags with carcasses for disposal.

Most damage was caused by the combination of wind and water. "Some places the wind wiped out everything, including power lines, and uprooted big trees," he said. "A lot of damage also was due to water. A lot of buildings were standing and we'd go in and everything was destroyed by water.

"People that had lived there all their lives never thought it would be that bad," Gimenez said. "There were vet clinics that were wiped out. One vet inhaled so much water he had pneumonia. A horse vet was holding onto a tree to save his life and had many cuts and bruises."

The VMAT-2 team also found a lot of stray animals, mostly dogs and cats, "and part of our mission was to bring food and water and leave it there for the animals. Our job was not to pick up live animals. We would find out where loose dogs and cats were and notify HSUS (the Humane Society of the United States), and they would go pick them up."

Team members did a few rescues of injured or trapped animals. He said there were a lot of loose cows and horses. "Most of them were okay except for some horses with medical problems with skin lesions and dermatitis and fungal infections," reported Gimenez. "At least they had plenty of grass so they had something to eat even though they were loose. There was water. Some of the water was contaminated, but livestock can drink it at levels that humans cannot.

"I had never been in a hurricane area like that before," said Gimenez. "Devastation was all over. Houses tossed like match boxes. Boats in the middle of road. Cars everywhere. By time we left (Monday Sept. 12), power had been restored mostly. There were no red lights until then."

Asked about the violence of New Orleans by those displaced and homeless, Gimenez said the people in Mississippi "were amazing. We had been hearing lots of stories of violence in Louisiana, but we saw none of that. They had a good sense of humor. You needed to if you'd lost everything."

He said in towns, the people drove very carefully because there were no traffic lights or signs. "They were patient standing in long lines for food. People would stand in line all day to get food from the Red Cross or Army," he said.

As far as the horses, Gimenez reported that, "Fortunately, what we saw was most of the people who had horses had evacuated with the horses. We saw number of farms where barns were destroyed and flattened. We did see a couple of cases where horses had been in mud, but they were alive. We had to give them a bath and treat them for skin infections. A lot of people evacuated their horses to Hattiesburg, Miss., and Baton Rouge in Louisiana."

The animals that lived seemed to have weathered the storm fairly well. "We saw a few cases of injuries," said Gimenez. "I'm sure there were horses that perished."

He said after the storm many areas were inaccessible by vehicles, so mounted police units from other areas came in to keep looters at bay and take control of outlying areas. Gimenez said several of the police horses had leg and hoof injuries from stepping on debris--pieces of wood and nails.

He said on the coast, the best thing he saw was that horse people had evacuated and taken the horses. "That's the best thing they could do," he re-iterated. "Once you got north of Interstate 10, although there was some devastation, there were some farms where horses were there and okay, but trees had fallen. Still, they had grass and water."

Injuries there from wind and water included a lactating mare with an injury to her mammary gland, which resulted in the loss of that side of the mammary gland (see accompanying photo). "We saw a couple of cases of pneumonia because of the water," said Gimenez. "We shipped those horses to Hattiesburg, where there were appropriate facilities for treating them."

While the VMAT-2 group had good supplies, Gimenez said in hindsight it would have been nice to have a truck with a stocked vet box. "We were driving in vans with limited medical supplies for horses," he said. "If we'd had a truck with a vet box that was fully equipped, we would have been able to do more things than we did. We were in areas where the equine veterinarian was injured or had lost his practice. People there had horses with normal needs that horse people have everywhere. They needed vaccines. They had lame horses. But no one was around to provide veterinary assistance." 

The cache of supplies for the VMAT teams took several days to deliver due to the blocked roads and downed power lines on the roadways.

"We did the best we could," he concluded.

After VMAT-2 was in Mississippi four or five days, they set up a field hospital in Gulfport for people to bring in animals--mainly small animals. They had a phone by then, so horse owners could come or call team members and they would go in a van to the horse and try to help.

"The main thing--the most important thing--is if you are a horse owner and live on the coast and you know you are going to get hit sooner or later, have a good evacuation plan," encouraged Gimenez. "If you know the hurricane is coming, don't wait. Don't try to be a hero and ride out the storm with the horses; that's where the tragedy is going to strike. Have a good evacuation plan and get out of there."

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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