Editor's Note: While this piece was about Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in the Gulf Coast four years ago, relevant lessons are learned from every major disaster to prepare for the next one, such as Hurricane Sandy.
Hurricane Ike

Lessons learned from previous natural disasters like Hurricanes Gustav and Ike help us prepare for future disasters.

We had our plan for Hurricane Gustav. We had been here before with Katrina. Schedules were set. Evacuation of coastal parishes was going well. Coastal pet owners and their pets (large and small) were settling in to shelters. Most horse owners knew they needed to move quickly before mandatory contraflow (government routing of evacuation traffic outward on all roads from major cities) from our 12 most vulnerable parishes. Thousands of horses were located just north of I-10 and, we hoped, out of harm's way. Only a handful of farms had made the decision to "ride it out," but we knew where they were this time.

The morning of Sept. 1 winds picked up to about 40 mph in Baton Rouge and limbs fell in the backyard. Within minutes weather announcers warned of increasing winds, and the eye of Gustav was moving right over our community. By afternoon 90 mph winds and storm conditions knocked out electricity to nearly a million people, downed and uprooted large trees, and destroyed structures. And Baton Rouge is more than 100 miles inland from the coast! Two people in a nearby neighborhood were crushed when a tree fell onto their daughter's home--they had evacuated from New Orleans only to meet their death in the previously safe haven of Baton Rouge.

Gustav rammed a destructive path right up the gut of Louisiana, sparing New Orleans, but devastating thousands of other areas. At the university we divided into three response teams: Team 1 took care of the steady equine caseload in the veterinary teaching hospital and clinic; Team 2 launched the external response with the Louisiana State Animal Response Team; and Team 3 took care of our biggest need--responding to our own Equine Health Studies Program faculty and staff whose homes sustained major damage.

The School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) was without power for several days. A true test of our comprehensive emergency operations plan came when a New Orleans Police Department Percheron-cross mare required a three-hour colic surgery during Gustav; imagine wearing complete surgical attire without any air conditioning, nearly 100% humidity, 98-degree temperatures, and little to no ventilation.

Many students, faculty, and staff sought refuge at the SVM, where there were lights, communications, food, and, most importantly, camaraderie. Most were without power for a week or more. No restaurants were open and no gas stations were able to pump gas ... even if they had a supply.

The SVM was on a backup generator and carried on providing service, maintaining research, and continuing most teaching programs. Challenges included sterility in surgery, protecting sensitive equipment, such as the CT and ophthalmology microscope, from climate fluctuations, and preserving critical frozen research samples.

We had just begun seeing some normalcy when Hurricane Ike approached. Lucky for us, it skidded on by and into Texas, but not without causing major flooding in our 12 coastal parishes. We're still helping the Ike-affected parishes with hay relief.

With thousands of evacuated horses along the I-10/I-12 corridor-especially north of Lake Ponchartrain, Lafayette (Evangeline Downs area), and Lake Charles and the Delta Downs--there were only a few equine casualties, including a roof collapse on a horse. Most horses were out of harm's way, which we hope is a reflection of the lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Rebecca S. McConnico, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is an associate professor of equine medicine in the Equine Health Studies Program at Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine.She is also equine branch director of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association's animal response operational arm).

This was originally posted in the November 2008 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.