Recovering from Rita's Wrath

Initial assessments of storm-torn areas in southwestern Louisiana showed that many horse owners were able to get out of Hurricane Rita's way before it battered the coast as a Category 4 storm on Saturday, Sept. 24. Veterinarians said that while many cattle perished as a result of Rita, only a handful of horses have been found dead, mainly due to the fact that storm surge waters receded more quickly after this storm than after Katrina. It was anticipated that additional reports about horses will continue to come in as more assessments are made.

"We were on the extreme eastern side of the storm," said Shannon Gonsoulin, DVM, owner of All Creatures Animal Hospital in New Iberia, La., whose clinic was spared by Rita. Some of his colleagues felt the brunt of this hurricane, however. The homes of the parents and grandmother of Chad Richard, DVM, were destroyed by Rita just weeks after Richard spent long days in St. Bernard Parish, La., rescuing horses stranded by Katrina. An All Creatures veterinary technician also lost her home in the storm.

For the most part, equines seem to have done well, a contrast with the hundreds found dead in flooded areas after Katrina.

"Most of the people in these areas own horse trailers and they either evacuated or turned them (the horses) loose," said Ky Mortensen, director of development for Louisiana State University's Equine Health Studies Program (EHSP, which has been integral in helping recover and treat horses following Katrina). Mortensen has spent this week driving through Vermillion and Iberian Parishes with EHSP veterinarians and local veterinarians such as Gonsoulin to check on animals about which owners had called the LSU horse hurricane hotline. Calls to the hotline increased on Thursday and Friday of last week, but slowed down during the weekend.

Mortensen said following Rita, there were many homes and other structures that floated or were blown 100 yards or more off their foundations, which was reminiscent of Katrina's destruction. Even while the damage of the hurricanes is similar, horse owners in southeastern Louisiana "don’t have the same needs that the people in the New Orleans area have," he explained. "The horses are not downtown and are not backyard horses (trapped) in neighborhoods--these are bigger farms with a lot of horses that they just turned out in the pasture."

Gonsoulin added, "The biggest killer of horses with Katrina is that they were left in stalls because people didn't expect the storm surge. Ninety percent of the fatalities were because of this."

Last week, All Creatures advised clients and horse owners in the area that if any sort of storm surge was expected due to Rita, they should turn out their horses.

"I think most of the clients heeded that message," Gonsoulin said. "There were a lot of horses swimming the day of the storm, and most of the animals found high ground."

He said he's heard that as many as 3,000 cattle are grouped in high-ground areas of the southern Vermillion Parish after they were able to move to high ground on their own. "We did get reports of horses and cattle stuck in trees, and unfortunately you're going to have that, but the majority of the animals (that were left behind) are going to be OK."

The reason? Simple geography. "The storm came through a lot of that area, and once the storm passed, a tidal surge came in, flooded the (sugar) cane fields pretty quick, and it did drown a few horses," said Mortensen. "Most found high ground, though. Here there are no levys, so the water went out just as quickly as it came in, so most animals are standing on dry ground.

"The horses that did get drowned that I saw, it wasn't the same situation as in Katrina," Mortensen added. Following Katrina many horses drowned in stalls following the storm surge and flooding. "Most of the (live) horses I saw yesterday had been turned out, and even the horses that I saw that had been killed, it took place during the tidal surge, which just forced them to swim or go along with the current. What would happen is they'd go along with the current and then get caught in a fence. I only saw three horses that way, but I saw quite a few cows that way. But every time I saw a dead horse it was because he was caught in a fence."

The quickly receding water was a relief to Gonsoulin and other veterinarians who had taken part in animal rescues in the Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes in past weeks. Those areas of southeastern Louisiana were virtual bowls waiting be filled because of the levy systems and bodies of water surrounding them. It took rescue teams 10-14 days to get down into affected areas to rescue animals after Katrina due to the flood water, whereas only two days passed before the roads were accessible following Rita.

While the immediate need after Katrina was horse rescue and recovery, people affected by Rita first will need help feeding and housing their animals.

"They need to get the cows off that pasture (that had been flooded)," Mortensen said. "The grass is just ruined. Pasture is going to be an issue; we just don't know how quickly it can (grow) back. They're moving (the livestock) to pasture that had not been affected, and most (farmers) are just using the extra acres of friends and relatives."

Gonsoulin added, "In the near future, we're going to need some hay and feed lined up. This is one of the most heavily populated horse and cattle areas, and there's not going to be much for those animals to eat. So we're gearing up to disperse to the population as needed."

Between 30 and 40 horses that were either evacuated prior to Rita or rescued after the storm are living at SugArena, a small staging center with about 100 stalls in New Iberia, La. Many of the horses that have been rescued in the past two days have gone to either spare pastures with good grass or to the SugArena, although officials expect more cattle to arrive at the facility than horses. Veterinarians have noted lacerations and minor cuts among rescued horses, and at least five have been taken to an area veterinary clinic for treatment.

A 4-H livestock show was scheduled for this past weekend at the SugArena, which sits at one of the highest elevations in the parish. Due to the storm, owners kept their show pigs, lambs, and steers at the facility. Add those creatures to the evacuated and rescued horses and small animals, and you have a veritable menagerie.

"It's a little parish fairgrounds, but it's pretty organized, and they're getting a lot of donations," said Mortensen.

Lessons From Katrina

A majority of the horse owners and veterinarians of Louisiana were still reeling from Katrina when Rita made its way toward the state. "We finished up with the horse rescue over there (southeastern Louisiana), and doggone it if we didn't have Rita," Gonsoulin said, pointing out that All Creatures is still boarding many of the animals from owners affected by Katrina.

Gonsoulin says in the past few weeks, horse owners, volunteers, and veterinarians have presented a portrait of teamwork and selflessness. "Over there (in the storm following Katrina), we felt obligated to help because we're veterinarians. We were lucky or maybe unlucky enough that we were close enough to the disaster to be there to help almost immediately.

"Over here, we're obligated because these are our family and friends," he added. "Everybody we're helping, I know without a doubt if it were us in the situation, we'd have the same help and support from those guys. And we need to be ready to help, it's part of being veterinarian and having family and friends involved in such a widespread disaster.”

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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