In late August and early September 2005, news networks depicted the widespread devastation and despair Hurricane Katrina had caused in scenes resembling those you might see in an apocalyptic movie. Many volunteers who assisted residents said the reality of Katrina’s fury only sank in when they saw the destruction firsthand and met people the storm impacted.
I had the opportunity to examine an aspect of Katrina that mainstream news outlets didn’t cover as closely: Scores of livestock and horse owners impacted by Katrina’s storm surge and resulting flooding and tornadoes. My then-editor sent me to coastal Louisiana within weeks of the storm. With camera, recorder, notebook, copious pens, VapoRub (to mask smells of decomposition), thick-soled boots, and a tetanus shot, I headed to New Orleans with names of a few people I’d interviewed over the phone and would soon meet face-to-face.
Farther inland at the evacuation center were life and an overwhelming sense of gratitude from horse owners.
These initial phone interviews and tearful accounts by horse owners, caretakers, and veterinarians didn’t prepare me for what I’d see. It was a bit like a movie. The initial post-storm chaos had eased, but my hosts contended with road closures, citywide/parishwide curfews, and unpredictable circumstances. What would we encounter around the next bend? Fighting stray dogs? A kind soul filling livestock troughs in the parking lot of what used to be a gas station?
In the rural areas, water had receded, and on abandoned farms sunken horse carcasses—bays, chestnuts, cremellos, paints—lay in strange, contorted positions, tangled in fence wire or simply forever asleep in their locked stalls. I didn’t need my VapoRub, as the air smelled briny and stale, not rancid.
Thankfully, farther inland at the evacuation center (hosting several hundred horses) were life and bustling activity. Ambient sound was a mixture of diesel engines and of barking dogs that had been rescued. While horse owners there displayed a general attitude of “we made it,” I saw weariness or uncertainty in some of their eyes, shock or resignation in others.
During this visit (and an additional trip five months later, when I also visited the Mississipi coast) I listened to dozens of people recap their storm stories, stymieing my emotion these tales evoked.
One might be tempted to think owners were irresponsible, uneducated, or even heartless. Rather, it was readily apparent to me that most were simply unprepared for a storm surge of Katrina’s magnitude and the unexpected consequences (levees breaking and inability to return home).
Irish novelist James Joyce said, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Sadly, unpreparedness is often what spurs productive planning, as we’ve seen happen post-Katrina in this region. I dare say this area’s horse industry now is one of the nation’s most storm-ready.
Vets involved with post-Katrina recovery (and other emergencies) have contributed to our June 2012 issue available for purchase online or available on newsstands. May we all draw from their seasoned advice and be ready to respond in any type of emergency.