Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast In August 2005 with winds exceeding 135 miles an hour, driving a huge storm surge that raised sea levels by as much as 29 feet. The monster storm vented the worst of its fury on Eastern Louisiana and Western Mississippi, where some coastal communities were completely destroyed. Among the victims were thousands of animals, including an unknown number of horses. Will future storms match this one in fury? No one is complacent. And there’s no reason to feel smug if you don’t live in hurricane country. Wildfire, flood, tornado, earthquake, chemical spill, terrorist attack—the stars have something in store wherever you are, it seems. You can’t prevent these events. And if past disasters have taught one lesson, it’s this: You can’t wait for officials to bail you out. You need to create a horse disaster plan.
“People need to prepare on their own,” says San Diego, California, veterinarian Terry Paik, who’s a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners Equine Emergency Task Force and who’s helped rescue horses from several disasters, including Katrina. By creating a horse disaster plan, you increase the odds that you and your horses will come through safely. In this article you’ll find tips gathered from veterinarians and others who have helped horses through major disasters. Follow their advice to create your horse disaster plan, and you’ll be ready.
For Ann Laux of Poway, California, the wake-up call came early one Sunday morning in October 2003, when a friend phoned to warn of a wildfire near the stable where her six horses were boarded. “I stepped outside and saw a third of the circumference of the horizon on fire,” she recalls. This was the Cedar Fire, the worst wildfire in California history. Fanned by hot Santa Ana winds and fueled by dense brush, it had raced overnight from the backcountry to the San Diego suburbs, burning 5,000 acres per hour.
Ann and her partner jumped into their tow vehicle and sped toward the stable, one of three facilities on a country road that together housed more than five hundred horses. Flames were leaping downhill toward the property and evacuation was under way when they arrived. Several of Ann’s horses had already been taken out—a good thing, as she had only a two-horse trailer for her six. “We would not have gotten all our horses out on our own,” she says. But, acting individually or responding to calls put out by the San Diego Humane Society, volunteers had come from as far as 40 miles away with trucks and trailers. “A racehorse trainer and some polo players turned up with big rigs. People just pulled in and took the first horses they could load. Incredibly, despite massive disorganization and confusion, all the horses survived.”
That wasn’t the case throughout the area. Farther into the backcountry, some horses were lost. One woman was killed while trying to haul her horses out on narrow mountain roads: Smoke made visibility poor, and she went off the road into a ditch.
As the fire continued to advance, Ann’s horses were moved repeatedly—first to a neighboring stable; then to showgrounds farther west, in Poway; and at the end of the day to Del Mar, where the racetrack and fairgrounds took in about a thousand equine refugees. Local businesses donated feed and equipment, and volunteers cared for the horses and helped reunite them with their owners. “People rose to the emergency and showed incredible guts,” Ann says.
Dr. Paik, who was involved in the Cedar Fire rescues, says San Diego was fortunate in having an active group of volunteers trained in animal rescue. “A lot of areas don’t have this,” he says.
To safeguard your horses …
You Need a Plan
Begin by assessing your risks. “Every region has unique challenges,” notes Dr. Paik. You can’t anticipate everything, but you can be ready for the events that are most likely in your area. Local emergency services and flood-control agencies can help you identify those dangers, and they may be able to help you figure out how to minimize risks particular to your property.
For example, in wildfire-prone areas, you’re wise to clear trees and brush in a 75-foot strip around your barn—fire can’t burn without fuel. In hurricane country, you might retrofit your barn with hurricane strapping, which consists of metal strips screwed into roof/wall junctions and other key points. Several resources listed in the box on page 96 offer detailed recommendations for reducing the impact of disasters on your property.
These steps won’t eliminate danger, though. You’ll need to decide ahead of time how you’ll respond when nature starts playing hardball. Then put your plan in writing, and give copies to neighbors, barn helpers, and family members. If you’re not home when a wildfire threatens or a tornado watch goes into effect, they’ll know what to do.
Your plan should cover two options: to evacuate or to ride out the disaster at home. Whether you stay or go depends on the nature of the threat, how much warning you have, and your individual situation, says Laura Bevan of HSUS. Some events don’t give you time to get out of the way; tornadoes strike randomly, and earthquakes are completely unpredictable. For other disasters, stay or go is a harder call. Hurricanes pose risks from wind as well as flooding. In coastal areas that could be flooded by storm surge, the safest place to be is clearly someplace else. But your horses may be able to weather the storm if there’s no flood risk.
In most cases it’s best to get horses out of the path of a wildfire. They may be able to survive a fast-moving grass fire if they are turned out in a large open area—a plowed field or a large fenced arena, for example—because the fire will skip that area as it moves through. Their chances aren’t so good in areas surrounded by thick woods and brush, though, because the fire will find plenty of fuel and generate intense heat.
Plan A: Stay Put
Roads may be blocked and power out, but your horses can ride out a storm or the aftermath of an earthquake if you’re prepared. Here’s a basic checklist.
Water: Dehydration is a major cause of death for horses in disasters of all kinds. Storm runoff may contaminate natural water supplies; power failures may knock out your well pump, and even municipal water supplies may be interrupted.
- Figure on 12 to 20 gallons per horse per day, and have at least a three-day supply (seven is better) on hand.
- Store water in clean 55-gallon drums, and fill all troughs and other containers on the property. Line garbage cans with plastic trash bags and fill them, too.
- Have chlorine bleach on hand to purify water if necessary. Add two drops of bleach per quart of water and let stand for 30 minutes.
Feed: Deliveries may be interrupted. Have enough feed and hay on hand for at least three to seven days, stored in a dry, secure area. Put feed and hay on pallets and cover with water-repellent tarps to reduce the chance of water damage.
Power: Have a gasoline-powered generator on hand so that you can power critical equipment (such as your well pump).
Disaster kit: Keep these supplies within easy reach.
- Flashlight and batteries
- Battery-operated radio
- First-aid supplies for both horses and humans
- Extra halters (leather or breakaway) and lead ropes (with stud chains for extra control)
- Clean towels
- Emergency tools—chain saw, hammer and nails, wire cutters, pry bar—and, of course, duct tape
- Materials for quick temporary fence repairs
- Fire extinguisher
- List of emergency contacts, including your veterinarian and state and county animal-welfare and emergency-response teams.
Horses in or out? In many cases, your horses will be safer in a pasture than in a barn that could collapse, flood, or burn. Building collapse was a major cause of horse deaths in Hurricane Andrew, which pummeled Florida in 1992. Outside, horses turned their butts to the wind. Many were wounded by flying debris, says Laura Bevan, but they survived. However, she adds, if you don’t have suitable turnout and your barn is built to code and well maintained, horses may be safer from wind indoors.
- Be sure that the pasture is free of debris and far from power lines, and that fences and gates are secure. (Do not rely on electric fencing, which could easily be knocked out.)
- If there is a danger of flooding in your area, be sure to choose a pasture with high ground.
- If you’ll be leaving the property for your own safety, make sure the horses have access to clean water and forage. It may be days before you can get back to them.
Halters on or off? You’ll hear different views, but most people interviewed for this article favor keeping halters on so that horses will be easy to catch if they escape during a storm or other event.
- Use leather or breakaway styles, as all-nylon halters could snag on debris and trap the horses.
- Be sure each horse has some form of ID (see “Whose Horse Is This?” on the next page).
Close up: Shut barn doors, secure pasture gates, turn off power, and get to safety before your own life is in danger.