When Disaster Strikes

After a tornado, fire, or other disaster hits your farm, how do you respond and rebuild?

In the wake of the 2013 tornado that devastated a swath of territory near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Amanda Eggleston volunteered to help veterinarians transport animals from the disaster zone to treatment clinics or Heritage Place, a holding facility designated to house horses left homeless by the storm. One of Eggleston’s most challenging tasks was pulling a 40-foot horse trailer into the disaster zone. Her most pressing problem was convincing first responder crews that she belonged there in the first place.

“The power lines were down, and we were working around fire and police crews,” recalls Eggleston. “It was just like a war zone, and a lot of first responders didn’t want us there because they didn’t know what we were doing.”

The Oklahoma tornado had demolished every home, barn, and pasture fence in its path. And this was just one of the many disasters that have challenged U.S. horse owners in recent years. In 2014 mudslides in Washington state displaced 30 horses and left their owners and caretakers homeless. In 2015 a rash of barn fires claimed the lives of several horses in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere.  

When Disaster Strikes

Veterinarian Clayton McCook, DVM, MS, a founder of the Oklahoma Large Animal First Responders Group, was also on the scene after the 2013 tornado and says that no matter the cause, how owners respond to a disaster’s immediate aftermath is critical.

McCook treated injured horses and euthanized those with injuries too severe to treat. He had to maneuver his way around first responders, some of whom had no idea how to deal with the injured or frightened animals in the storm’s aftermath.  

So McCook and a team of volunteers, including Eggleston, talked with response crews and offered to help by removing frightened or injured animals and performing equine first aid on the scene. Once police and fire personnel knew what McCook’s work was about, they extended the crew every courtesy.

“The key is that you don’t want to get in the way,” McCook says. “If you just show up with your truck and trailer, you’re going to get in the way; it’s as simple as that.”

First Things First: What to Do, Expect

Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, agrees with McCook’s assessment. “After you call 911, it’s (the first responders’) incident,” she says. “You are no longer in charge, and they’re going to take you out of the equation.”

Even so, some owners still have unrealistic expectations of the law enforcement and fire crews who assess property damage immediately after a storm or other disaster, Gimenez says. First responders generally move from property to property, searching for people who might have been injured. She reminds horse owners that in any emergency situation, human safety takes precedence over animal injury.  

“The thing we hear over and over and over from people is that the first responders don’t spend a lot of time on their properties,” Gimenez says. “Well, if they don’t find a human injury, they are going to move on; even if you have a situation where a horse is under a barn, they are still going to move on because human beings always come first.”

Gimenez advises owners to refrain from attempting to move or treat an injured animal without professional assistance.  

“The point is that if you get yourself hurt, you do your horse no good,” Gimenez says. “It’s better to call the veterinarian because first responders are likely to work with the veterinarian,” if they’re not consumed with rescuing humans.

When Disaster strikes

Searching for Survivors

Often, the task of providing for surviving horses and other animals falls to volunteers, says McCook. Those volunteers generally go door to door checking for animals, and he says they use donated resources such as feed and hay to feed and care for the animals.

“In one case the horses were okay, but they had gone without water,” McCook recalls. “I asked the responders if they had water, and they pulled out pallets of bottled water and filled the horses’ buckets.”

In cases where veterinarians like McCook do find an injured horse without any form of identification—which is frequently the case—the best thing owners with access to the disaster area can do is speak up for animals they know. McCook recalls one case involving an injured mare that he would have euthanized due to her injuries. But before he could, a close friend of the animal’s owner begged him to give the horse a chance.

“We got her out of there, and she was treated. She lost an eye, but she survived,” McCook recalls. “That never would have happened if someone had not been on the scene to advocate for her.”  

Records and Documentation

Difficult as it might be, keeping calm in the aftermath of a disaster is critical for both human and animal welfare. Knowing just where to find or store veterinary and other crucial information can eliminate at least some of the stress horse and property owners experience when disaster strikes.

Veterinary records

Debi Metcalfe, founder of Stolen Horse International, recommends owners have their veterinarians microchip every horse; the chips carry vital identification and medical information that is especially helpful when horses are evacuated ahead of an impending storm or other natural disaster. But owners can carry the same information by simply attaching it to their key chains. “You can download information about your name and contact information, as well as medical records including Coggins and other test results and specific medical information onto a thumb drive,” Metcalfe says. “If you put the thumb drive on your key chain, you always have it with you.”

Insurance contacts

Chris Hackett, director of personal lines policy for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, recommends property owners carry critical insurance information on these thumb drives, as well. “Thumb drives should include contact information for your insurance agent as well as policy numbers and the name and phone number of your insurer,” he says.  

Disaster photos

Finally, as smartphone cameras are always ready, Gimenez recommends property owners and others take and store pictures of the disaster’s aftermath. “In fact, take several pictures so that others can learn from your experience,” she says. “A lot of people underestimate nature.”

Restoration Time

Once they know that their families and horses are safe, owners generally turn their attention to mending fences and rebuilding lives. At this point in the recovery process, Gimenez urges people to use common sense.

She says owners and their helpers risk injury when they tackle cleanup projects on their own or without the proper equipment. She recommends that owners hire contractors instead to remove debris and clear storm-damaged sites before rebuilding.

“You probably don’t have the heavy equipment you need to begin cleaning up,” Gimenez says. “Your best bet is to ask first responders if they know anyone who has that equipment.”

Hackett recommends that property owners choose those contractors wisely. “It’s good to do your homework,” he says. “Some contractors will descend on an area that has just been hit by a disaster and take advantage of people who have lost everything.”

Likewise, he advises property owners to never pay anyone for work before it has been completed. “Also never pay in cash,” Hackett says. “Create a paper trail.”

And before rebuilding, Hackett says it is crucial to understand what your insurance policy will or will not cover. “For example, if you have a policy covering your home, it probably won’t cover your barn unless you have a farm policy,” Hackett says. “If you have a farm policy, it will cover the barn, but if you have a horse-related business, it will not cover your loss of income, so you have to make sure you have business-related coverage for that.”

When it finally comes time to build, Gimenez says owners should make their properties, including barns, riding arenas, and other outbuildings, as resistant to damage as possible. Begin construction projects by siting houses, barns, and other structures within a so-called defensible space—a 100-foot perimeter devoid of overgrown brush, flammable chemicals, or trees that could fuel airborne cinders, which high winds can carry during strong storms. Defensible spaces should also be free of fuel cans, portable heaters, or other equipment that could spark a fire. In some cases, defensible spaces give first responders an area to stage equipment and personnel while they work at the property, Gimenez says.  

Livestock left on the property during any disaster—if there’s enough warning—should be placed within this defensible space.

Meanwhile, rebuilding a horse barn located in a tornado zone can be tricky, Gimenez says. Because tornado paths are unpredictable, it’s impossible to site a barn within a zone that would be safe from such a storm. But there are techniques for constructing fairly tornado-resistant barns. She says the best involve using heavy building materials such as concrete blocks and heavier-weight wood, installing hurricane clips and nails instead of gusset plates (thick sheets of steel used to connect beams to columns), and placing shorter beams between supports. Such construction is expensive, Gimenez says, and it sacrifices some barn features many horse owners desire.

“This heavier construction contributes to poorer ventilation and light, higher humidity, and a poorer quality of life for the horses,” Gimenez says. “In other words, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

But with minor retrofitting such as installing hurricane clips and reinforcing support beams and fasteners or joints, most conventionally constructed barns can survive minor to mid-range tornadoes, Gimenez says.

For fire-damaged barns, Gimenez recommends owners consult the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines before rebuilding. The NFPA is a nonprofit international organization that provides codes and standards research, training, and education for firefighters and other emergency first responders.  

The NFPA standards include construction codes relative to electric service and structural features. Among the most important are dual exits in barns.

“There should be at least two exits for everything, including stalls,” Gimenez says.“Especially if you want to get horses out, you always have more than one possible route out.”

Otherwise, Gimenez recommends installing sprinkler systems to tamp down flames and smoke detectors to alert local fire authorities.

Hitting Home

These recommendations are not lost on Eggleston. In January 2015, fire swept through the barn at her Takeoff Farm in Norman, Oklahoma. She lost three horses in the blaze. “Honestly, I thought I would (more likely) live through another tornado than have a barn fire,” Eggleston says.

Now rebuilding, she is working closely with designers to incorporate a litany of safety features into her new barn. “I’m putting in Dutch doors so that we can get the horses out from the outside, a smoke detector that is wired directly to local fire 911 dispatch, and a sprinkler system,” Eggleston says. “We’re doing it right.”

Meanwhile, McCook says there’s little difference between Eggleston’s barn blaze and natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, or wildfires. All require barn and horse owners to stay calm and cooperative.

“Any disaster scene is abject chaos, and it’s a balancing act for first responders and for owners,” McCook said. “The key is for owners to find a way to help their animals without getting in the way of first responders while they work.”

Have an evacuation or disaster response plan in place so you can be safe, calm, and cooperative when disaster strikes.