Real People, Real Life - Helping People and Horses in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

More important than all the shows in the world are the real life winners on the Gulf Coast tirelessly hauling supplies into the most unbelievable conditions you can imagine in Mississippi.

One of these persons who has been going beyond the call of duty helping those in need is Sara Warner. In an email, Warner has sent us an update on the efforts they have been making to help the horses and people affected by Hurricane Katrina:

Thanks to all of you who so generously donated items when the call went out—in less than 48 hours we collected a trailer load of feed, hay, first aid items, halters, and other needed supplies. I picked up the trailer from Jimmy at Florida Farm and Feed on Friday afternoon, September 9th. In addition, Sandy Filippi in Panama City collected a load of donated supplies.

We had originally intended to take the supplies to the Pensacola staging area at the Escambia Equestrian Center on Saturday morning. Once we arrived, however, we found things were beginning to change very quickly. In talking with the people from Panhandle Equine Rescue—Victoria Dennis and Linda Lambert—it seemed clear to us that it would be some time before horses began coming out of the disaster area. Because of the overwhelming quagmire of red tape, communication failures, and the reluctance of horse owners to let people come in and take their horses, we realized that what we needed to do was get the supplies we were gathering into the disaster area.

Victoria and Linda were in contact with a small-animal rescue group from south Florida who were at that moment en route to Mississippi. They had received a distress call from the fire chief in Perrelton, MS, asking for help in rescuing dogs, cats, horses, cows, and goats. Perrelton is located on the western border of Mississippi, about 20 miles east of New Orleans and ten miles west of Bay St. Louis. It was hit with the full force of Katrina’s winds and a 24’ storm surge. I decided to join the Sarasota team as they came through Pensacola and take our donated supplies into Perrelton—if we could get in. Another team from the Panhandle rescue group also decided to travel with us to help with the search and rescue operations. Saturday night we talked about the problems we would face with no communications, no electricity, and possibly limited fuel supplies. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a change of clothes and some food. Jean Stippich gave me a new toothbrush. I topped up my tanks and filled extra diesel cans. Sunday morning at 6 a.m. the three teams left from the Equestrian Center, convoying west.

I-10 was eerily empty as we traveled. We had been warned about long delays due to one-lane stretches where the bridges have been compromised. But there wasn’t much traffic on Sunday morning. The first thing I saw when we crossed the line into Mississippi was the base of a huge metal billboard, bent almost double. And dying trees. Everywhere, the big oaks and countless pines along the interstate are dying from the salt-water inundation. Between the high winds and the extreme force of the storm surge, most of the trees are snapped off about 15’ off the ground, bent at sickening angles. As we crossed the bridges over inlets and bayous, as far as the eye could see, the cypress trees lining the water bodies are brown and dying. It’s a frightening sight, and forebodes a very long recovery of the area’s natural beauty and ability to sustain life. More frightening still is the debris line, high up in the dying trees, some 15 feet off the ground—a snarled line of boats, cars, whole roofs, thousands of boards, plastic bags, a rocking horse—slammed into the upper branches by the force of wind and water.

We left I-10 and headed south to Perrelton. When we turned west again on the last leg of the journey we entered a zone of unimaginable destruction. From that point on nothing has survived intact. Adding to the devastation—the twisted tangle of trees on both sides of the road, the horribly wracked and collapsing homes—is a sludge of polluted mud left behind by the surging waters. This layer of sludge covers everything. But, crews had made the road passable, and we reached the Perrelton fire station around 11 a.m.

We began trying to contact area horse owners and throughout the afternoon we worked to find horses needing help. It soon became clear that many of the surviving horses were still lost in the woods or being kept out of sight by owners who were afraid of having to surrender their animals to authorities. We spent several hours picking up starving dogs and cats and bringing them into the staging area in Perrelton. Very high praise is due to Kendra from Louisiana and Don Kjos’ group from Florida, which brought in vets and teams of folks to help these desperate pets. The animals were vaccinated, given flea and tick treatments, had photo files created for them stating where and when they were picked up, fed, walked, loved, and housed. Several of them were already being claimed by their owners on Sunday afternoon. Others were being transported to foster care until their owners could be located.

I was looking for someone to take charge of the feed and supplies everyone from back home had donated. I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t find the right person and all the feed and supplies would sit unused in the fire station, passed over in the rush to set right more visible concerns. I took several bags of feed and hay and went with Peggy Creadon from Sarasota in her truck to search the area further down the coast. We began tracking a group of horses and cows on a little-used back road and found two areas where they had recently been feeding and resting. We left hay and scattered small amounts of feed in the grass, hoping to get them in the habit of returning to these areas frequently. We brought in more dogs and cats. They all have stories. I remember some of their faces.

Late Sunday evening I finally found what I was looking for—a feed store owner—in the small community of Lakeshore where he had operated his business for 30 years. This man would know where horses were, know who owned horses, and who needed help. But the events of the day had already taught me that people were reluctant to let us know where the horses were. People in the bayou are used to taking care of their own. And, even if this man wanted our help, he would not break trust with his neighbors. So, the trick would be to negotiate a way to speak without saying certain things. We talked a little and I told him I had some feed and supplies I wanted to get to horses in need. He looked at me closely and finally said he could help with that.

It was after dark and curfew had already begun. We were supposed to be back at the lock-down area already, where the National Guard had directed us to stay. I told him I would be back in the morning and bring my trailer. As we were about to pull away, he asked us if we could make one stop on our way back and unload the feed and hay we had on the truck. I think he couldn’t stand the thought of us taking that feed and hay back with us when he knew we would be passing near horses that were desperately hungry. We agreed, and he said he would send a man ahead of us to lead us in to the place. It’s a good thing too—dark sure is dark when the sun goes down in Mississippi.

As we were unloading the feed onto the porch of a house, the man who led us into the farm told us proudly that that house (which was still standing) had been covered to the roof with the flood waters. His 95-year-old grandmother and 85 year-old great aunt were among “our old people” who were in the house when the waters came. He and his family members floated the most elderly people on mattresses, hacked holes into the attic and onto the roof, and managed to get everyone to safety. The pride and sadness in his voice made a sound I will never forget.

Monday morning I returned to Lakeshore and spent more time talking to our feed store owner and his wife Teresa. We talked about the two horses in their barn that belong to a boarder. I asked them if they wanted to send the horses out for vet care. They hesitated, saying they would call the owner and explain that she would get the horses back as soon as things got back to normal. But their apologetic glances told me what they weren’t saying—that no one here trusts people from the outside.

We sat for awhile in their makeshift kitchen under the eaves of the garage and drank coffee Teresa made for us on a camp stove. They showed me with great pride two beautiful Iraqi cavalry saddles that survived the flood. A relative brought them home after a long stint in Iraq during Desert Storm. They described in loving detail the many things they have lost—a life-long collection of knives, beautiful antique furniture pieces and the stories of each piece, their family photos, an exquisite Princess Diana Barbie. Teresa is a lovely, soft-spoken woman. “I wasn’t afraid,” she tells me with a small, embarrassed smile. “When the water started coming in, I wasn’t afraid. But then we opened the doors so the water wouldn’t take the house down, and the snakes started trying to get in, to get to higher ground. I’m afraid of snakes,” she says with a shudder.

And then more stories come. Of friends whose propane tank blew up during the flood, scorching their arms and faces. Kenny and Teresa rescued them and applied first aid for four hours before the life flight could get them out to a hospital. Their thirteen horses drowned in the flood. The foal lost and still unburied on the ground outside. The inability to properly bury the dead.

We unload the feed and supplies from my trailer. I pick up the things sent by my friends at home—halters, buckets, bandages, meds, bales of hay, bags of feed—and put them in Kenny and Teresa’s hands. I can almost feel the care of the people back home in each item. An overwhelming sense of healing attaches to this simple motion, and, I think, not much in this place is right, but this is a start. As I leave I say, if you will tell me what you need I’ll try to see you get it. Kenny hesitates, and I’m thinking of how long it takes to make trust, of how tenuous a new friendship is. “I need Bute,” he finally says, looking at me hard. “I can help a lot of horses with bute.” I nod. “I’ll get you some bute,” I say. “And bedding,” Teresa adds, motioning to their flooded barn.

On the long drive home, I’m too exhausted to think or plan, but the next morning I run into my friend Danny who owns the feed store in Grand Ridge. He says he’s about ten minutes away from heading to Mississippi to work the recovery. “Sit down,” I say, “and let me share some information with you before you go. I just got back from there. There’s a man in Lakeshore you need to see.”

I call Linda Lambert at the Pensacola Equine Rescue. She tells me she can meet Danny with bute and shavings as he comes through Pensacola. Later in the day Danny calls as he’s heading south off I-10 toward Lakeshore. “Where did you say to turn?” he asks. “Highway 604,” I say. “Just turn right at the twisted tree. You can’t miss it.” We laugh. Such is the poor humor left to us.

Over the last two days I’ve been gathering information from friends who were in other parts of the disaster area over the week-end. There are many more horses and people needing help. I’ll be leaving the trailer at Florida Farm and Feed next Monday to collect donations and going back to Mississippi next week with another trailer load of supplies. Please donate shavings, hay, Betadine scrub, other vet supplies and so forth. (And you might pack in a bottle of bute if you have a little extra.) I have a load of feed already donated, so probably we don’t need that this trip.

I’m attaching the information from LSU and the Lamar Dixon Expo Center where rescued animals are being brought for long-term care. Anyone who wants to volunteer can just show up at Lamar Dixon. The horse care is covered for now, but they need people to walk the dogs and clean cages.

If anyone has a pretty doll like a Princess Diana they would like to donate, I will take it to Teresa. I think a gesture like that would mean a lot to her.

Thank you all so much for what you are doing. I hope the healing you are making comes home to each and every one.

Read the September 23, 2005 Update by Sara Warner