Latest Hurricane Causes Inconvenience to Florida Horse Industry

Hurricane preparation, toleration, and clean-up--take four. Horse owners and veterinarians in Florida weathered Category 3 Hurricane Jeanne beginning late Saturday, their fourth natural disaster in six weeks.

Veterinarians and animal rescue officials that are weary from the back-to-back hurricane visits (Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne) report that there have been few equine deaths and horse injuries have been minimal. However, downed trees and resulting power loss, combined with the logistics of caring for horses in these conditions, have been major frustrations through all four storms.

Jeffrey T. Berk, DVM, a partner in Ocala Equine Hospital in Ocala, Fla., said, "It's an odd feeling because when you are going through your fourth hurricane, and you're just saying, 'Here we go again.' It's very discouraging for a lot of people." Ocala Equine and many other businesses and residents in Marion County are currently without electricity and are running on generators.

Due to area cell phone tower damage, many veterinarians can only be reached sporadically. Several large Florida equine hospitals were equipped earlier this month with satellite phones in case all phones and cell towers failed during an emergency.

In nearby Gainesville, Fla., (about 40 miles northwest of Ocala), the veterinary teaching hospital at the University of Florida and the College of Veterinary Medicine are closed Monday (Sept. 27) to prevent staff/students from having to traverse unsafe streets. Facilities are expected to reopen Tuesday morning, Sept. 28.

Dana Zimmel, DVM, Florida emergency communication contact for the American Association of Equine Practitioners' Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee and an assistant professor at the UF CVM, said, "There's inconvenience more than injures, I would anticipate. There is probably nothing too significantly different from the resulting damage of the other storms, other than we have to be careful of the flooding. That doesn't really affect our local counties, but more on the coast."

Beyond power outages that lasted a week or more because of the many large oak trees that fell on power lines, the hurricanes have had one bright detail in common. "All of the storms have been characterized by no horse deaths that I am aware of (in the Ocala area)," said Berk. "I'm sure that there might have been a few losses as there usually is in any disaster situation. There also hasn't been an increased amount of injuries because of the storm."

David Perry, Incident Commander for the Emergency Support Function 17, said for the whole of Florida and the four hurricanes, "We've had very few (equine) death losses and very few medical problems, really. There have been very few lacerations. Mainly (the only problem we've had is) just the feed supply, we've had some hay shortages, especially in Ivan. There are a lot of areas where there's not a lot of pasture, and a lot of the horses are stalled."

Perry added that the feed shortages have been taken care of by donations from businesses and individuals.

Zimmel said the equine losses she's heard about can be considered hearsay and were due to trees falling on barns where horses were stalled, and possibly fractures sustained when a horse was trapped in a flooded pasture near Daytona Beach (after Ivan hit). As hurricane recovery continues, more accurate information on the welfare of horses should become available. Voicemail messages left by The Horse for veterinarians in worst-hit areas were not immediately returned, and many of the phone numbers were out of service.

"We've learned a lot about the things that we should do (in the face of a hurricane), we've tried to put together the things that are important, and we've been lucky that it hasn't been a full blown disaster here," said Zimmel. "Most of the horse farms are pretty well prepared. If they don't have a generator, then they have been setting out trash cans under the barn's eaves (to catch water for the horses). "

The eventual path of the hurricanes and general preparation can be credited for the minimal effect on horses. Berk says that evacuation is fairly unpractical for horse owners in the Alachua and Marion County area because hurricanes are so unpredictable and the routes of storms that spin off of the hurricanes are incalculable as well. Zimmel agrees, because in this area of Florida horse country, "There's just no way -- some farms have 500 broodmares. That is why it would be so devastating if a Category 5 (hurricane) hit the coast and came directly toward us. Most hurricane force winds can extend 30-100 miles from the eye. It varies with each storm. So, if the eye of the hurricane came within 100 miles of Marion County, that's when we'd be in the most trouble. We've been fortunate that they've been coming in much further south and downgraded before getting to us."

Zimmel adds, "I think you need to evacuate if you are in a low-lying area and in a flood plain. If your barn is going to flood or your pastures are going to flood, you should get out of there. There are a few barns that were already in water Saturday before it really began to rain."

She emphasized that coastal evacuation orders are important because winds are so incredibly strong that they would devastate any structures in their path. Down near the coast, turnout areas are limited, so owners must evacuate the horses to higher ground. "Houses might be able to tolerate 100 mph winds, but barns? Who knows," says Zimmel. "It's better to get the horses outside. If you don't have a well-constructed barn or if you have no pasture, you need to get your horses out of there. "

For Alachua and Marion Counties, Berk said, "We created an initiative prior to the last storm (after Frances, before Ivan), whereby we had a meeting with all of the Florida veterinarians, the university, and the sheriffs' department, and we tried to make a disaster preparedness plan, which we have in place," said Berk.

He explained that the plan furnishes water to horses and allows for the identification of horses that are lost because of downed fences. Found horses are brought to one of several locations where they are cared for, photographed, and their images placed on the Internet so they can be identified.

"The greatest inconvenience is no power," Berk added. "Most horse farms have generators in place attached to their wells so they are able to pump water to the horses." He said the stifling heat coupled with no power has made recovery miserable for many. "You're getting the horses water, but you can't do anything (else). But everybody is getting through it pretty well, and everybody is being very cooperative, considering the shortcomings."

Jeanne has been downgraded to a tropical storm, and at 11 am EST on Sept. 27, it was located about 50 miles east-northeast of Albany, Ga., according to the National Weather Service. Another 4-8 inches of rain was expected in association with Jeanne as it moves north and northeast later today.