Hurricane Four-Pack

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August 13: Hurricane Charley lands on Florida’s west coast.

September 5: Hurricane Frances hits Florida’s east coast.

September 16: Ivan slams into the Alabama and Florida’s Panhandle.

September 25: Hurricane Jeanne strikes Florida’s east coast.

Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne were most unwelcome summer guests in Florida, Alabama and on up the East Coast, pushing humans and their animals to the limit in an unrelenting tirade of high winds and water. In their wakes, these hurricanes left downed trees, mosquitoes, no electricity and generally miserable conditions as grim reminders that when nature takes its course, that course can be devastating.

Could Have Been Worse…

Dana Zimmel, DVM, DACVIM, DAVBP, is the Florida emergency communication contact for the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ (AAEP) Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee. She’s also an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville.

In contact with colleagues statewide, she reports that the hurricanes caused several equine fatalities statewide. In the Panhandle near Pensacola, a tree falling on a barn killed two horses. In Marion County, which includes Ocala, three horses died in a similar occurrence. But flooding was the big issue, and it, too, was sometimes fatal. Near Daytona Beach, a horse owner with 37 horses in pasture lost one equine due to a fractured pastern, sustained as the animal was being hand-walked out of waist-high water along with the rest of the herd.

“The biggest problem is flooding,” says Zimmel. “Horses were living on little slivers of land in the middle of the state. Mosquitoes and encephalitis are concerns.

“But compared to losses in the dairy and livestock industries, horses overall fared well.”

There’s plenty of evidence of that. The HITS Post Time Farms show grounds in Ocala escaped major impacts. “Some trees are down and carports had minor damage,” says spokesperson Nick Ezzo. The facility harbored “guest” horses twice during the storm cycle, at no charge.

Leslie Rosen of Stadium Jumping, with its major winter series at Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club, also notes that trees were uprooted or broken and some flooding occurred, “but our barns held up extremely well.” At one point, 300 “outside” horses holed up there when local owners evacuated their barns due to high water.

Professional sports agent Bob Huebner lives in Okeechobee in an equestrian development, where he and wife Julie own two trail horses. “Dogs and cats, you can bring in the house, which we did, but horses were our greatest anxiety,” says Huebner. He painted phone numbers and his lot number on them with a commercial yellow-stick marker in case they broke out of their pasture.

Huebner left his horses outside during the storms, a decision he believes was the right one. (The community stable did the same thing.) Not that it was easy on the horses in any case:?“After Jeanne, my horses were shaking, quivering, much worse than after Frances, when they were just agitated,” he recalls. “I think they move around the barn to get away from the wind.” For future storms, this forward-thinking horse owner may build a solidly-anchored half-moon-shaped concrete Rebar structure that would allow horses to stand on either side as needed.

While Huebner’s pastures are relatively treeless, he did lose 50 trees in other areas thanks to 120-mph winds. But Huebner said he’d be leery of putting a horse in a wood-fenced corral. “No matter how large the wood, isn’t it going to become a missile?” he asks.

“I learned to be scared,” says Bibby Farmer, manager and assistant trainer for hunter/jumper professional Don Stewart of Ocala. “With 52 stalls, we did evacuate before Jeanne.” Frances, she remembers, hung around, and the farm was without power for five days. She set up generators, but flooding and standing water—attracting mosquitoes—was a major irritation. “We had to spray,” says Farmer.

Prior to Jeanne’s arrival, her ground was terribly saturated, and the big oak trees on the grounds had already undergone sufficient stress to cripple them. Farmer was already headed to Camden, S.C., for regionals and had her sights set on the Capital Challenge in Baltimore: Almost all the farm’s horses were removed, albeit at the last minute, and made their way to shows.

The entire horrific experience “takes a lot out of you,” says Farmer. “Not just the horses, but bringing in jumps and other equipment that could become projectiles is stressful, especially with one storm after another.”

Not far away, Seminole Feed marketing director Summer Best weathered the storms, along with her horses, in her structurally-sound concrete barn. “In general, horse people are farmers, with some connection to hard work. First priority: Fix fences, pull up trees,” she recalls.

Advice for coping with future storms? “Fill up every water trough and bucket you have, even if you have a generator,” counsels Best. Like Huebner, she recommends that owners “turn horses out” unless large, looming trees overhead are a risk.

Farm equipment suffered almost as much as horses, jumps, and fences. One farm lost a massive dually truck to a seven-foot “lake” that formed in a gully near the farm’s entrance.

Tornadoes, Too

Even though the “Famous Four” hit the Sunshine State with full force, other southern states weren’t spared the wrath of weather gone awry. In South and North Carolina near Camden, hunter/jumper trainer Jack Towell reports that some 41 tornadoes spawned one day as a result of Frances’s widespread atmospheric disturbances.

Some of these were quite powerful. The nearby racehorse facility owned by Dale Thiel was the location of a most unusual event: An F3 tornado picked up a four-horse trailer and deposited it on the barn. The stalls were made of concrete blocks, but the roof was made of wood—and it blew away. Six horses were in stalls, one in a grooming stall, and an employee was asleep in a room. “The horses had a few scratches,” says Towell, but otherwise, humans and animals were mostly unscathed.

The wind did pick up a dog and drop it—uninjured—a hundred or so feet away. True to the unpredictable forces of a tornado, bagged shavings were left untouched, and two hanging baskets still swing from the barn gutter rim, but “it took the insides of the washing machine apart,” says Towell. And that was a metaphor for the storm cycle as far as most horse owners were concerned:?a lot of gut-wrenching worry, but little damage to their equines.