"Thank God We Got Out!"

One Recovery Story From New Orleans

Foresight, planning, and quick action allowed 72 horses to be rushed from Equest Farm in New Orleans, La., to safety before Hurricane Katrina hit on this day last year. Among the stories of distress and watery death, it buoys our spirits to learn of an evacuation plan that worked, a farm that was rebuilt with the help of an entire community, and what that farm's manager learned from the weeks of uncertainty and confusion.


After the post-Katrina cleanup of Equest Farm, which is based at City Park in New Orleans, the lesson program resumed and has been very successful.


The remnants of this grandstand are the only remaining wreckage from Katrina's wrath at Equest Farm.


Leslie Kramer visits with her horse and pony, Newt and Budweiser, at Equest Farm. The animals spent the weeks following Katrina at Kramer's sister's farm in nearby Hammond, La.

Leslie Kramer of Equest Farm, which is based at New Orleans' City Park Stable, established an evacuation plan in 2001 for horses at the stable. "I have shippers on call 24/7 in the hurricane season...if there was a three in the Gulf (a Category 3 hurricane), then it was time to call me and then we'd make the decision whether to go or not," she said. 

What makes Equest's situation unique is that many of the horses at the farm before Katrina were privately owned and insured. So in addition to getting 72 horses evacuated to safety, Kramer was responsible for locating staging sites where the horses would be covered by a roof. Equest Farm had a successful trial run with the evacuation plan when faced with Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

When Katrina hit the Gulf, Kramer and the shippers were immediately in contact. "I called my sisters, I called the trainers that work for me, and said, 'Get the horses wrapped and get them out.' I called Lamar-Dixon, sent (42 of) the horses, and had shavings ready. I sent my five men with the horses with buckets, hay, feed, and supplies to last for seven days, and got them hotel rooms.

"The other 30 horses went to my sister's farm in Hammond, La., Dr. (Jay) Addison's place, to ride out the storm in the pastures," she explained. (Addison was featured last September as rescuer of many of the St. Bernard Parish horses; click here.) All 72 horses were evacuated within eight hours. "In the aftermath of it--thank God we got out because the barn had seven feet of water in it--what we didn't figure on was the lack of communication. My plan worked great, we all got out, but we couldn't get in touch with the owners.

"The horses were gradually redistributed to the owners over time; we finally found everybody," she continued. "If I have to do it again, I need to know how to get in touch with the owners if there is an event (and phone service is interrupted). We didn't think that far."

Kramer rode out the storm in Oxford, Miss., at her daughter's volleyball tournament. After the storm she and 25 other people, 14 dogs, and 19 of the the evacuated horses stayed at Kramer's Columbia, Miss. farm (the other horses either stayed in Hammond or were sold). She and her sisters continually were trying to find feed and hay for the evacuated horses that were stabled at Lamar-Dixon.

"The biggest problem was we lost 60 bags of feed at the farm," she said. "They only took enough for a week. And I had 500 bales of hay sitting here, ruined."

Cleaning Up
Kramer was able to return to City Park Stable the third week of October 2005. More than $375,000 worth of equipment and tack was destroyed. Debris clogged the farm from all angles, and the barns had sustained substantial roof damage.

Since there is a fence around the farm, FEMA would not come in and help clean up the damage, even though the stables are on public land. However, a member of the FEMA crew agreed to help clean up Equest Farm if he could park his equipment at the stables. "He hauled off $20,000-worth of debris for nothing," Kramer said. "That was a major help.

"I had another gentleman who called me and said he wanted to help, that he wanted us back up and running, and he'd heard what happened to us," she said. "I did not know him. And I was kind of taken aback, thinking, 'You're kidding.' And he ended up donating $35,000 to help us remove and haul away the (destroyed) offices, the men's (farm employee's) trailer, and the tack shop. Another gentleman donated a tractor and a four-wheeler to feed the horses.

"I had some incredibly wonderful people step up to help," she added. She was disappointed to find that many of her horse show customers walked away when it came time to clean up and rebuild. But many of her riding school students returned, asking how they could assist.

"It was the community effort that helped us get back in here," she said. "We sustained so much loss--we lost our houses, we lost our businesses in Chalmette, we lost this farm, my farm in Mississippi had $2 million worth of timber loss...we were hit everywhere. To put (this) barn back together required me really wanting to do something that I felt could be done for the community. I figured there were a lot of people in New Orleans who wanted to spend an hour away, just riding a horse and doing something normal. If I could make this place look as normal as possible, and as quickly as possible, I felt the business was there, and I was right."

Rebuild It and They Will Come
Many of the former boarders from Equest are scattered all over the United States now. A number of the owners had to give their horses away because they had no other means of taking care of them when they had to relocate.

Kramer considered the real possibility that other storms the magnitude of Katrina could hit New Orleans again, and she realized she needed to scale back the business to better prepare for that kind of threat. There are 18 boarders, and she will only accept a maximum of 20. Students are piloting 16 school horses around the arenas, scaled back from 25 horses. Kramer's lesson program is booked, and it has been far exceeding the new income goal she set.

"It's a really nice program," she said. "It's different, but it's not bad different...it's good different. What City Park is to the horse industry is a place where people can learn to ride and learn to love the animals and then they can move on (to more advanced riding programs).

"I learned from this storm what's important, and what people need in the aftermath of something like this," Kramer continued. "They don't need to be traveling around the country spending $3,000 a week at a horse show; that's not where we are right now. Where we are is to enjoy the animals, learn to ride, and do schooling shows.

"This experience has tested what each and every one of us is made of," she said. "In the face of exhaustion, in the face of loss, how can you dig down and get the rebuilding done? A lot of it is sheer manual labor and guts and the right people coming back. My men who have worked for me for five years came back, and they've helped.

"It kind of in some way renews your faith in mankind," she stated. "You just feel humbled by what people do for you because of their love of the horse and their love of the escape."

Kramer emphasized that the neighboring residential community, Lakeside, still looks "as if a bomb hit." But Equest Farm provides an escape from the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans. "If you look outside here and take a view of the park to the right, it looks like you're in the country, and it looks like nothing happened...as long as you don't go over that levee," she said. "A lot of people come here and say it's their relaxation, their therapy for the week. It's one of the parts of the city that looks real nice, with the flowers out and the grass cut."

Two riders trotted around the arena wearing faces of new rider concentration and contentment. They were a testament to one happy ending from Katrina's wrath.

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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