Hurricane Wilma: First Assessments

"The roads into the Keys are basically tide-dependent at this point," described John Haven, Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) branch director, from the State Agricultural Response Team (SART) incident command post that is currently set up in Kissimmee, Fla. to offer aid after Hurricane Wilma. "When the tides are down, you can drive…when they're up, you can't. I heard there was a fair amount of flooding…quite a few of the trees snapped like toothpicks."

Officials at the SART center had successfully reached by phone more than 68 veterinary practices in the hurricane-affected counties today, and six teams drove out to assess storm-affected areas. As of this evening (Oct. 25), Haven only knew of one Wilma-related equine casualty, and he'd heard about more safe horses than he had of horses in harm's way. It's still early, however. More teams will move into areas known to have pockets of horses tomorrow.

Haven is the director of the University of Florida (UF) College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), but he's been wearing the hat of VETS branch director since Wilma hit yesterday (Oct. 24). He and UF's Cynda Crawford, DVM, PhD, leader of the VETS companion animal section, are helping Florida agriculture and veterinary officials assess veterinary needs following Hurricane Wilma.

Dana Zimmel, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP, assistant professor and extension veterinarian at the UF CVM, has been helping educate veterinarians and horse owners on hurricane preparedness. "The Keys got hammered the worst. I don't know how many, if any, horses were out there," she said. "That area--Miami through West Palm Beach--hasn't had that kind of wind since Hurricane Andrew. That was reported on the news quite frequently here, and I haven't heard we have massive horse injuries down there like we had in Hurricane Andrew."

In early assessments, the Florida counties that seem to be the worst hit are Monroe, Miami-Dade, Collier, Broward, and Palm Beach. "There are still a couple million people without power," Haven added. "At one point they said there was almost 30% of the population of Florida that had no power."

Phone lines are spotty as well, but Haven and Crawford were able to get through to a lot of veterinarians. "We called about 68 vet practices today," he said. "On the vast majority of them, we were able to get a voicemail or a live body. In Homestead (in Miami-Dade County) we had a fair amount of problems reaching people" due to downed circuits.

"The state Department of Agriculture already has a number of teams in the affected counties, driving around and checking on practitioners and some of the big horse farms," Haven explained. The teams that have gone out consist of two people (state and federal agricultural officials and/or members of ESF 17 teams--Emergency Support Function teams for animal issues) in each truck, which is equipped with a global positioning system and satellite phones for communication.

"You have to be safe with the responders (teams) first," he noted. Six teams went out today and 10-12 will head out tomorrow--some specifically into the Wellington area, where there is a heavy concentration of horses.
"Dr. Crawford is here with me, and we've been making phone contact with practitioners, starting with Homestead and working our way up (north). We're finding out which ones are going to run out of fuel in the next day or so; part of Miami has issues with getting fuel out. And we're trying to establish centers for patient care so that we can refer other veterinarians to send animals to until they can get power up.

"Also, as we get in touch with the veterinarians, we're letting them know who around them is operational," he added. "We're keeping track of who needs drugs and who needs feed, and we're putting that in a tracker system, and getting them the aid that they need."

Here are some of the reports that have emerged from affected areas:

  • One horse had to be euthanatized in Broward County due to storm-related injuries.
  • Calder Race Course received some damage, and two horses sustained minor injuries. For more information, see
  • 1,200 horses at the Pompano Park Harness Track in Pompano Beach, Fla., are in satisfactory condition. "They have water and generators and we will make sure they have fuel and everything they need," Haven said.
  • Areas of Miami Beach had power restored today. Workers were able to restore power to half of the Florida Keys today.
  • Power outages in the area of the Florida Association of Equine Practitioners' Office in Wellington, Fla., were expected to last for two to three weeks.
  • There was minimal damage reported at Palm Beach Equine Clinic in Wellington, Fla., the hospital was functioning, and the horses were safe.
  • Many area cellular towers were destroyed, but landlines have been working reasonably well.
  • Haven said he'd spoken with animal control officials in Palm Beach, who seem to think there were minimal problems--if any--with horses.

The incident command center might move closer to Miami tomorrow, which is one of the more impacted areas. Officials have veterinary medical supplies in a trailer, if needed, and several pharmaceutical companies have offered to FedEx anything the group needs for treating horses.

"Dr. Michael Porter (who is leading the VETS equine section) is on standby," Haven said. "If I need him, the MEDS (UF's Mobile Equine Diagnostic Science) truck will come. He has some equine practitioners on standby that are part of the VETS team that he can bring with them. There are a number of fourth-year veterinary students if we need to augment any of the large animal practices. (See below for more about the VETS service.) Crawford has been organizing the same type of response for companion animals, if needed."

Last week, Zimmel e-mailed and faxed information to all of the mixed animal and equine practitioners she could reach in areas that were in the projected path of the hurricane. She sent lists of vital emergency personnel phone numbers for each veterinarian's area, ESF 17 coordinator contact information, instructions on how to cope in extended power outages (getting fuel, etc.), and hurricane preparation instructions to be given to horse owners. She gleaned her information and suggestions from plans that came out of meetings of Marion and Alachua county veterinarians (north central Florida) prior to Hurricane Frances in 2004, and tips that she learned after helping Louisiana veterinarians care for horses that had been rescued after Hurricane Katrina.

"I needed to try to learn as much as I could from their set-up, so I could be prepared for Florida hurricanes, and I went to help my neighboring college as well," Zimmel said.

Zimmel says her role is "to get people prepared ahead of time, to educate veterinarians, horse owners…and the VETS team will go in and do the work. I'm trying to help organize our state to be better prepared." She said several area veterinarians had attended equine emergency rescue seminars earlier in the year.

So far, it seems as if horse owners and veterinarians were able to prepare appropriately for Wilma.

"We haven't gotten anything that sounds like there were any real major equine industry issues," said Haven. But it's only been about 36 hours since the storm. Emergency operation officials go by what they call a 72-hour rule, he explained. "Everything will seem OK and then someone, within 72 hours, will get into an area of devastation that wasn't found (previously)."

Officials keep calling, checking, and waiting, and hoping this will not be the case.

Understanding VETS

University of Florida veterinarians and staff have been organizing the Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) since early 2005. The service was designed to help state emergency officials make initial assessments of local veterinarians' needs following a natural disaster or disease outbreak in Florida. Zimmel explained, "Then we send in a small team of trained people to be in the community--their own self-sufficient group--while area veterinarians get their practices back on their feet."

The eight-person VETS team consists of two section leaders, two treatment veterinarians, two veterinary technicians, and two veterinary students, in addition to the branch director. As deployment procedures become more "routine," the branch director can stay at the emergency command center or at the university.

There are about 50 volunteers available to fill spots on the team.

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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