Editor’s note: In this article, we check in with multiple sources who were in the path of Hurricane Ian not only to see how they fared, but to offer strategies for preparation and how to handle the aftermath of a disaster.
Hurricane Ian razed the Southwestern section of Florida and continued through Central and Northeast Florida on its way to the Carolinas and up the Eastern seaboard. As it passed through Orlando, Florida, it caused significant flooding, downed trees and left debris blocking roads.
Ariel Womble, DVM, MS, from Orlando Equine Veterinary Care, noted, “Flooding is particularly bad in areas along the rivers, and flash flooding continues for days following the actual hurricane event. Owners emerged from their homes in the morning following Hurricane Ian to find some of their horses practically swimming in high levels of rising water.”
Womble pointed out that in many parts of Florida, structures are often built on fill dirt that is at least 3-4 feet high on property that is at—or close to—sea level. One of the main concerns following extreme flooding is the consequences of horses standing in water for too long. After that, they are forced to stand in mud for days on end.
Womble suggested a couple of options to get horses to higher ground:
- Put hay in the areas around higher buildings to lure them out of the water.
- Walk the horses out to a waiting trailer (when there is road access) to haul them to properties well above the river and out of flooding where they can be stabled on solid ground.
She said you need to send your horses out with proper identification, copies of their medical records and insurance policies, and your contact information. Womble also advised including the name of a friend or agent who is authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are out of contact due to electrical or cell phone outages.
Some owners hauled their horses to Ocala, which was on the edge of the storm. There, there are well-built equine sporting venues on high ground with concrete block buildings.
Whitney VanWinkle, VMD, of Gulf Coast Equine Clinic in Sarasota, Florida, got word three days following the hurricane that a levy along the Myakka River was flooding above 15 feet (flood stage for the river is 7 feet, according to the National Weather Service). She said the river and a nearby slue were putting her property at risk days after the storm. (Editor’s note: This is the river that closed I-75 for a time due to flooding.)
She advised owners who live in low-lying areas to get actual measurements of the elevation of their homes and barns relative to surrounding land so they can determine the significance of flood warnings. This is particularly relevant if there is a single road that serves as both ingress and egress to a property. If you are forced to evacuate horses from your property, VanWinkle said that it is critical to consider the flooding potential at the destination property for at least a week as waters continue to rise after a hurricane.
Womble stressed that it will take weeks for floodwaters to fully subside due to the intense amount of rain and saturated ground that cuases rivers to continue to rise.
With this in mind, and especially because of previous experiences from Hurricane Irma, horse owners obtained extra feed and filled large water drums in advance of Hurricane Ian’s approach.
Power is still out for a large portion of hurricane-affected Florida, which means farms that rely on water from wells will need generators or another source of potable water for the horses. Having the prepared water drums until electricity is restored is a great way to handle horse water. She reminded owners to have sufficient stores of fuel to keep the generators running since gas stations rely on electricity to run fuel pumps.
Shelter in a Barn or Outside?
Orlando Equine Veterinary Care posted announcements on Facebook and answered questions from clients in advance of the storm. The main question asked was whether horses should be locked in the barn or turned out.
Womble thinks it’s best to give the horses the choice of being in the barn or out in their paddocks. Then, they can move about as appropriate for the conditions.
She said having a good relationship with her clients enabled her to know each person’s property and what strategy was applicable to individual situations.
The area where Womble practices is mostly suburban, so most of the horses live in paddocks rather than roaming in big pastures. Fences are mostly wooden boards, thus are not as big a threat for injury during flooding as areas with wire fencing. As long as the standing water remains no higher than fence level or belly-deep at 3-4 feet high, she reported that most horses remained stationary, often in a circle. They congregated together when possible. By not moving about, the horses remained out of harm’s way of obstacles and floating or submerged debris.
In the three days following Hurricane Ian, VanWinkle attended to several lacerations and two closed tibial fractures in horses that were left in pastures. She said those injuries were likely incurred from flying debris. Of her three personal horses, she had two sheltered within a concrete-block barn and one was left outside. Despite six hours of unrelenting 130-mile-per-hour winds, the outside horse did fine, turning his butt to the wind and weather while sheltered against the side of the barn.
For clients with geriatric horses, VanWinkle said it is important to shelter them in an enclosed barn because they can’t move as fast. She said that is especially true for PPID individuals that often have sore feet from laminitis episodes. In addition, older horses are more subject to climatic stressors of wind, rain and cold.
When building her barn, Van Winkle asked the builder whether it was wiser to have open corridors, doors and windows to allow air and wind to flow through in severe storms, or if the barn should be closed up tightly. He told her the best chance of keeping the roof on was to “button up” the barn, keeping it closed completely.
In addition to a sturdy concrete-block barn, she has installed a high-tech metal shingle roof coated in crushed stone on her barn and house. She said everything stayed put except for a few soffits.
Barn design is dependent on many factors, and it is best to consult with builders for the best strategy for your particular property and geographic location relative to hurricane-force winds. The strategy for wood barns that can implode or fly apart is considerably different compared to strategies applied to concrete-block structures designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. She thinks horses with shelter only in a wooden barn and/or a barn with a questionable roof are best left outside.
One of the biggest concerns following a hurricane’s deluge is how to get horses out of the standing water and the mud that follows. Continual wetness can lead to problems such as thrush, canker, foot abscesses, pastern dermatitis, sloughing skin and swollen coronary bands.
Womble advised that a good strategy is to find a way to get the horses out of the mud for at least 12 hours a day where they can dry out in fresh shavings. If there is nowhere for them to be moved, she said about all one can do is fill an area with shavings and/or straw to help get horses’ lower limbs out of the mud as much as possible.
Some owners are concerned about their horses drinking polluted water, which might cause digestive issues and diarrhea. However, Womble said she sees just the opposite. The stress of the situation causes some horses to lessen eating and drinking, then they end up with an impaction.
To combat this, Womble will stomach tube those horses with water or oil, and she recommended feeding mashes of alfalfa cubes. In addition, she is a fan of using flavored water to combat dehydration—molasses-flavored water, orange-flavored Gatorade in water, or Horse Quencher that is a grain, beet pulp and flavoring mix in four flavor options that is quite successful in getting a horse to drink (a half-cup is added to a 5-gallon bucket of water).
In the immediate days following Hurricane Ian, VanWinkle had to treat several colic cases because the horses didn’t drink enough. All were managed successfully with medical treatment and oral fluids. She recommended soaking hay generously and feeding wet mashes with electrolytes, but to refrain from offering grain to horses in stressful situations.
Communication and Access
Blocked roads from flooding and/or debris means longer drive times for an ambulatory equine practitioner to be able to access clients and their farms. That is something to consider when an owner is calling with an emergency or for general patient care.
The lack of electricity and cell phone service has been challenging on many levels following Hurricane Ian. Some practitioners have asked people they have been able to reach to post a notice on Facebook or other social media platforms requesting clients keep trying to call and not give up. For a critical situation that cannot wait, referral is possible to practices outside the hurricane zone. That might mean hauling to facilities across the state such as Palm Beach Equine, northward to Equine Medical Center in Ocala, or a clinic in a less-affected area locally.
It is difficult for clients to reach veterinarians in areas with electrical outages and storm-damaged cell towers. Veterinarians also have management issues with those outages. VanWinkle said that her cloud-based practice management software relies on the internet service for accessing medical records and account information. At the time of this article, she had to go back to the old-style, hand-written medical documents. She will transcribe them to her digital practice management software when the internet is restored.
Bringing Horses Back to the Farm
Rebecca Gimenez Husted, PhD, of Technical Large Animal Rescue (TLAR) in Georgia, shared some sage advice for horse owners.
First, she advised that because there is time in advance of a hurricane, horse owners should make appropriate preparations. She said her best advice is to evacuate your horses right away, getting them to a place where someone is able to take good care of them in a safe environment with dry ground, shelter, feed and water.
Calling 911 is not an option during the storm, as you probably heard repeatedly on TV. First responders are not able to go out in the midst of a hurricane and can only attend to crises when wind levels die down substantially. Also, they will address human-based issues first. They are not there for animal rescue, although many times they will help with pets and horses once all of the people in need have been cared for.
Husted stressed that it is best to leave horses at your chosen evacuation location until you have a safe place for them to come back to. Inspect your property when it is safe for you to return. If fences are in disrepair, if standing water remains in paddocks or pasture, or if grass has been over-washed with contaminants such as fuel, chemicals or raw sewage, then it is best to keep your horses boarded outside the disaster zone.
Materials that have contaminated pasture grass can cause chemical burns of lips, the esophagus or skin. Ingestion can cause intestinal illness. Husted said that some fencing and repair materials—such as posts, boards, plywood and tarps—might be unavailable after a hurricane due to the number of people needing such supplies. She said you should plan to keep your horses boarded away from the disaster area until fencing, housing, feed and water issues are resolved.
“You’ll need to get yourself and your environment straight first,” said Husted. “Leave the horses in other accommodations outside the disaster zone until you can get your own life back on track.”
She pointed out that when you are stressed, your horses pick up on it. That also doesn’t help.
“You will have many things to deal with, like paperwork, insurance adjustors, family issues, potential injuries, as well as concerns about when you are able to return to work, as just a few examples,” she said.
Preparation is Everything
“There is no such thing as premature evacuation!” Husted emphasized.
She said it is your responsibility to prepare for all contingencies in advance of a hurricane or disaster and to get your horses out of harm’s way while you have the opportunity based on weather forecasting and mandatory evacuation orders.
Removing animals from your property well before the storm hits lets you concentrate on measures you need to take to evacuate important personal items and paperwork. You also can concentrate on efforts to protect your property from wind and flooding as best as you can before evacuating yourself.
Horse owners should have a disaster plan that is spelled out in advance, Husted said. She recommended that each necessary step be written down so in the heat of the moment you don’t have to think things through. You can follow your own step-wise written instructions.
Husted said it is good to practice your evacuation plan at least once a year. Not only will a practical plan for evacuation help your horses safely endure a natural disaster, but it also enables first responders in their job of helping those in crisis, said Husted.