by Erin Ryder
On the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, horse owners and veterinarians in the New Orleans, La., area are fleeing ahead of Gustav, a storm the National Weather Service says is likely to become a “large, powerful hurricane as it approaches the northern Gulf Coast.”
Though it depends on other pressure systems in the area, current predictions put Gustav’s path just west of New Orleans, with landfall expected at about 2 a.m. CDT Sept. 2. However, most horse owners in the area aren’t waiting to see exactly where the storm will land—they’re getting out now.
“It’s like a mass exodus already,” said Dr. Allison Barca, who serves equine clients in the New Orleans area. “They’re flying out of here.”
Barca said the state will enforce contraflow traffic lane reversal, in which all roads from New Orleans will allow traffic to go out of the city only. Once that is in effect, horse owners needing to haul multiple loads of horses will not be able to get back in to pick up animals left behind. So the larger barns are moving now, well in advance of the roads shutting down.
“They are moving like this hurricane is breathing down our throat, because of the contraflow,” Barca said. “In the past, we wouldn’t be moving these horses until the weekend, until we figure out if the storm is actually heading our way, and then we’d haul back and forth all night to get the horses out of here.”
Barca’s own horses left Aug. 28, but she’s staying to help her clients get on the road. “If we see something open-mouthed with a long tongue and teeth coming at us, we can get out in just a few hours, but my horses are gone,” she said.
Preparations for Gustav are well under way at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge.
“At this time, we are making preparations locally to respond to the effects of a potential hurricane early next week,” said Ky Mortensen, director of advancement in the Equine Health Studies Program at LSU's School of Veterinary Medicine. “In regard to external or state response involving the School of Veterinary Medicine, we are in communication with the Louisiana State Animal Response Team and working cooperatively with them to identify and publicize available boarding facilities for horses and small animals, while identifying potential volunteers that will be readily available to assist where needed.”
Mortensen noted the school is receiving calls from horse owners seeking guidance on how best to prepare. Veterinarians and staff at LSU also are preparing for a potential surge of patients.
“The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine is not an animal shelter, but may incur a wave of animals in need of veterinary care,” Mortensen said. “We are making preparations to accommodate any increase in caseload.”
In Barca’s practice, phones have been ringing as horse owners request help with missing Coggins tests and health certificates necessary to cross state lines or gain entry to evacuation farm sites. Barca is encouraging better preparation, well ahead of a storm forecast.
“I am appalled that people don’t keep their paperwork more in order,” Barca said. “First of all, you should know well in advance where you’re going—don’t wait until it’s time to leave to start calling the vet, crying, to find out where to go. You should know this already, especially if you’ve only got two or three horses. This should be lined up and ready. Your transportation should also be lined up and ready—you should not be doing it right now, because you and a thousand other people are doing the same thing at the same moment.”
Following Katrina, many horses ended up rescued and placed in shelters (more than 350 were cared for at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center) until their owners could be found. While Louisiana requires equines to have permanent identification in order to get a Coggins test, many owners had microchipped their horses, but they had not registered the chip number with the tracking company, nor kept their own records of the number.
“If you are microchipped, it is no good unless you have registered the microchip in your name with the horse track company,” Barca said. “Just having a microchip is not telling anyone anything.”
To further help with identification, Barca recommends all horse owners have metal dog tags with their contact information. These can be attached to horses’ halters (leather halters are preferred, because they’ll break if the horse gets caught on anything).