Hurricane Update: Healing Storm Scars

The ghastly, distressing images on network television and in newspapers aren't there to haunt our daily lives, but post-Katrina destruction remains a bitter reality for many horse owners in the Gulf Coast region. For some, the wounds of Katrina are deep, whether they have resulted from traumatic experiences during and in the immediate aftermath of the storm, grief over horses lost, or the continual struggle to find feed and hay for surviving animals. For others, visible progress, assistance, and sometimes good fortune have helped them hold their heads high and carry on as normally as possible.

In April, The Horse visited Gulf Coast Mississippi for the first time post-Katrina, and we revisited coastal Louisiana. The goal was to log progress in cleanup and recovery, learn of the status of future equine disaster plans, and find out what horse owners and veterinarians thought about the impending hurricane season that began in June.

What we found was a profoundly different Katrina had visited Mississippi than the one that came to Louisiana--same storm, different manifestation. Katrina made unique impacts in both places, leaving animal health officials and horse industry members with the immense challenge of planning for these highly unpredictable weather events. Most of those plans remain in progress as the region watches for storms entering the Gulf.

Mississippi: Nothing Had a Chance

Much of the Gulfport, Miss., and the surrounding area looks like Katrina hit yesterday. According to locals, the stench of death and decay only recently faded.

Early on Aug. 29, 2005, a 38-foot wave traveled 3½ miles inland from the coast. In its path was Waveland, Miss. There the wave pounded the two barns and home of Teresa (pronounced Teressa) Necaise and her boyfriend Kenny Ray Ladner. The couple runs Ladner's Feed Store near Waveland. They watched the storm hit from a friend's home that was a mile farther inland.

"First the water was coming down the road, and then all the sudden a big tidal wave came in at us," Necaise says. "You wouldn't have had time to get your shoes on...if you did, it was on you, it was that fast."

Their property, like so many others devastated by the storm, had never flooded or been hit by a storm of this magnitude. As Katrina held Waveland captive for several hours, Necaise was consumed with worry about the couple's horses, cats, and dogs, and the more than 40 boarded horses that were stalled in the barns.

"During the storm I was crying, 'Kenny Ray, the poor horses are drowning, they're all drowning!' " recalled Necaise, sobbing in recollection. "I couldn't stop crying."

Jackie Broome, DVM, who has a mixed-animal practice in the Gulfport, Miss., area, helped explain Necaise's plight. "All you could do was either save yourself or save them," Broome reminds her. "It was a hard thing to have to decide; you have people who would say, 'I'd save my horse no matter what cost,' but it's a whole different story when you're in the middle of something like this."

The force of the storm surge wave was such that any turned-out horses were drowned as they were pushed against trees, buildings, or fences. The water stayed up about five hours in that area of Waveland--approximately 10 feet at its deepest--so horses who weren't killed by the initial impact often drowned for lack of higher ground. Necaise related a story from a friend who had horses living next door to his two-story home.

"They found one of the horses had been trying to climb up the stairs (in the house)," she says. "His leg slipped through and broke...and he got stuck there and drowned."

Returning to their farm the morning after the storm, Necaise and Ladner found bodies of 15 horses strewn across the property. Most had floated out of the barns--some were trapped by trees and fences. Thirteen badly wounded survivors milled about, and a miniature mare and a pony stallion had managed to survive in one of the barns by swimming around in their stalls until the water receded and possibly resting intermittently on debris. The other barn was moved several inches off its foundation and was missing an entire shed row, which had provided an escape route for some of the animals. Several horses were never found (although they were seen alive after the storm, so they are presumed stolen), and the bodies of others have been found as recently as March, far from the farm.

Tornadoes capped Katrina's damage to the area, but twister-felled trees spared Ladner and Necaise's home. The house is unlivable due to mold and mud, but it is structurally sound. They made the best of the situation, making available a free

flowing artesian well on their property to other survivors and their animals, and a trailer with a shower so people could bathe. Family helped bury their horses. 

FEMA has since rented the portion of the property where an arena and pastures once were, and a host of white FEMA trailers housing cleanup workers are parked in rows within a chain link fence.

Broome explains that Necaise and Ladner's boarding business is a rarity in coastal Mississippi, because most area horse owners have two or three horses in backyard paddocks further inland from the coast. Barns full of racehorses are often evacuated to other training facilities when a hurricane threatens.

Broome says this means that overall the population of horses isn't very dense; all of the 80 "found" horses that were taken to a facility in Hattiesburg were returned to their owners after Katrina (this compares to nearly 400 horses pulled out of Louisiana).

What adds to a storm's deadliness is that most owners are reluctant to leave animals behind, and they either stay with them or they weather the storm farther inland, expecting to return to their pets within a day. Many Mississippi horse owners prior to Katrina couldn't evacuate their horses because of lack of transportation or a place to go (this problem was evident in Louisiana as well).

Some Mississippi horse owners were able to move their animals before the storm. Jodi Waldrip of Diamond Oak Farm in Pass Christian (about 10 miles southwest of Gulfport on the coast) took her 10 horses and ponies five miles north to a 400-acre farm where they weathered the storm. Diamond Oak is about 50 feet above sea level, so tornadoes were Waldrip's main concern. They ripped through the property, demolishing her house and tearing the heavy doors from her barn. Telephone poles and trees littered the property, closing it in like a fort. None of Waldrip's animals died, although the evacuation property owner's young miniature donkey died and another horse was never found. Waldrip's horses stayed at the evacuation site for two months. 

Relief in Mississippi was fraught with difficulty, mainly due to limited communication. Neighbors helped neighbors. In most cases, aid did not reach horse owners until a month after the storm. Aid came in the form of feed, hay, and supplies that were sent from all over the country and distributed at the Harrison County Fairgrounds in Gulfport and a staging area in Hattiesburg, which is about 70 miles north of Gulfport.

Broome and Necaise explain that owners who weren't notified about incoming hay loads or those who lived far from the distribution site were left without hay or were only permitted very small amounts, which wasn't helpful when they were assisting other owners with horses. As in many relief situations, there were unscrupulous individuals who took more than their fair share of the feed and left those who were in dire need without provisions.

Necaise says a stark contrast to the dishonesty she observed in some cases was the generosity and selflessness of one Florida woman, Sarah Werner, PhD, who made sure Necaise and other area horse owners had enough feed and hay to last through the winter. 

The United States Pony Clubs shipped hay to Waldrip, who is joint district commissioner for Jump for Joy Pony Club. Pennsylvania Pony Clubs sent boxes of tack to the club, and the equipment has been distributed among its members since much of the children's tack was destroyed in the storm.

Rebuilding

Broome told The Horse last fall that she would not return to her clinic, where 29 boarded animals had drowned in their kennels due to the "tsunami-like" wall of water. She's had a change of heart for several reasons, including the desire to continue to serve her clients who remain in Gulfport. Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) helped Broome bury the dead animals after the storm, and Mississippi State University pre-veterinary students voluntarily gutted and thoroughly cleaned Broome's clinic.

"When I was able to walk in there and see it like it is now, it was different than walking into it in ruin when there was still the smell of death," says Broome.

She will refurbish the building to a minimum so it can be cleared in minutes if another severe hurricane looms.

Her personal farm farther inland sustained tremendous damage from tornadoes, and Broome plans to build a loft in a barn that was spared. She's holding off on building a home at the farm (she's currently living in a house trailer) and plans on seeing what the 2006 hurricane season holds.

Waldrip is living in an RV on Diamond Oak, and she plans to rebuild her house and continue to repair her fences and run-in sheds. Necaise is staying put at Ladner Feed, but doesn't plan on rebuilding for now. "I'm scared...very scared," Necaise says about this year's storm season. We're not going to finish our house until after (we've seen what this season holds)."

Broome isn't confident that a plan will be in place for the next big storm. She says Mississippi State and other officials have been trying to organize a plan, but that it is still in its early stages. "Our preparedness, I think, hinges on being more prepared for a bigger disaster," says Broome. "I don't think it wasn't so much that people weren't prepared as people did not anticipate how bad this thing was. People did not have a clue how bad this storm was until it hit, and it was too late."

Currently Mississippi is in a drought, which adds another worry to Broome's plate. "That grass should be green and tall," she says, gesturing toward a pasture. "We're 21 inches below our normal rainfall right now, and that's highly significant."

She's constantly searching for hay sources. Beyond the difficulty of finding hay is finding someone to ship it down to Gulfport. Truck drivers with containers generally make deliveries with the expectation they will be able to ship something out of the area--there isn't much to ship out of Mississippi at the moment.

Louisiana

Just 80 miles away in coastal Louisiana, The Horse saw recovery from a different standpoint when we followed up with several horse owners who shared their experiences with the magazine last fall. There were more smiles among these owners; and while there was trepidation about the possibility of future storms, most seemed hopeful.

Cleanup was evident all over New Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, and a gargantuan pile of debris had been formed alongside the Paris Highway that leads into Chalmette, which is in St. Bernard. When the water rose in Louisiana, it stayed up, and as a result, many residents relocated and will not return until school lets out. Some might not return.

While some barns have been bulldozed and hauled away, there remain several standing barns full of decomposing horses; cleanup of residential areas is the priority. As residents return, it's predicted that these areas will receive attention.

Louis Pomes lost all 26 of his horses and most of his 200 cattle in St. Bernard Parish. The Racetrack Chaplaincy of America awarded him the White Horse Award for his role in saving human and animal lives and assisting owners following Hurricane Katrina (www.TheHorse.com/emag.aspx?id=6311).

In Pomes' spare time (he works full-time for the Parish), he has installed more than 6,000 feet of fencing and has 12,000 more to go around pasture for his surviving cattle and those he was able to purchase to replace those that drowned. He and a group from Louisiana State University's Equine Health Studies Program, along with

Louisiana agriculture officials, are forming a plan for increasing the likelihood that horses will be removed from harm prior to a storm. It involves persons like him making contact with St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish horse owners and recording contact information (both in-town for initial contact and out-of-town in case of emergency) so that they can be called in the early stages of a storm to verify whether they need transportation for the horses out of the Parish. Evacuation gathering points and routes are being established.

"I think everybody in St. Bernard Parish is going to scatter when they say 'Category 1,' " Pomes says. (Katrina was a strong Category 3 when it hit Louisiana.) "I think one of the good things is that we don't have to worry about the interstates being blocked from here to Slidell (a city along the area's evacuation route, north of New Orleans and St. Bernard). We had about 72,000-75,000 people in this area, and it's a little over 6,000 now, so it's not like a whole bunch of people are going to be scattering at one time."

St. Bernard and other areas of Gulf Coast Louisiana are also struggling to maintain a hay supply. Ruined equipment and salinity issues have made hay crops impossible in the area, and most hay fields are being grazed by cattle and horses. Regardless of the challenges, Pomes seems hopeful.

"Toward the end of the winter I was very, very worried," says Pomes about the hay supply. "We had just enough hay for the next couple of days, and the next thing you know another load managed to pop up. Thank God it pulled us through."

Looking Forward

Please visit www.TheHorse.com in the coming months, where we will be posting more stories about how the Gulf Coast horse industry is recovering from the 2005 hurricane season. Our interview subjects include The New Orleans Police Department Mounted Patrol, Darnell Stewart of Charbonnet Mid-City Carriages (who was pictured with his Paint stallion, Brandy, on the cover of the November 2005 issue), among other Mississippi and Louisiana horse owners who offered their stories of recovery. Also, we will keep you updated on the progress of planning and preparation for future storms, and the status of any weather events that could affect horse owners in the Gulf Coast region and elsewhere. 

Broome says if another Katrina-sized storm were to hit, she has trouble imagining that chaos, confusion, slow aid, and horse theft could be completely avoided. Residents are resilient, but many remain shell-shocked. "A lot of people are still just raising their heads up and wondering if they are going to get knocked back down again," she said. "I know a lot of people who still can't even think in terms of what they'd do if it came again. They just can't deal with the reality.

"We're kind of scared," Broome says. She has been trying to wrap her mind around the possibility of another destructive storm. "I hate to use that word, but we are."


Hurricane Preparation

  • Attach identification to your horse (in addition to microchips, brands, or tattoos) with out-of-town contact phone numbers. Having the information on a halter is not good enough—try to have a number written in permanent marker on the horse's side or braid the information into the horse's mane.
  • Have transportation available and a shelter chosen in case you evacuate.
  • If you must leave the horse behind, it is usually safer turned out.
  • Keep copies of health documents and identification information to aid in identifying your horse. Store them in plastic bags and know where they are so you can grab them if you evacuate quickly.

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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