BATON ROUGE, LA.—Louisiana State University (LSU) wasn't part of the state veterinarian's hurricane response or contingency plan before Katrina
was a household name. But shortly after the large Category 4 storm ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it became clear
that unsolicited veterinary help would be needed on an unprecedented scale to rescue and relieve thousands of animals.
Infrastructure for horse owners and foster farms will take longer to heal than treating rescuees. Animals turned loosed required
saving, but most were able to survive the floods.
About 34 equine veterinarians practice in the disaster-declared areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, according to American
Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) membership numbers; their operating status and levels of need were being assessed
An estimated 45,000 horses lived in the seven Louisiana parishes affected by Katrina; thousands more lived in effected areas
in Mississippi and Alabama. Hundreds were rescued and brought to staging areas in the three states.
"There was a plan in place by the state veterinarian's office and others, and to be quite honest, LSU wasn't really involved
in that organizational chart pre-Katrina. But we soon became involved before the storm because many of the evacuated horses
were being brought to Lamar (Lamar-Dixon Expo Center)," says Dr. Rustin Moore, director of Equine Health Studies at the LSU
School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge, and coordinator for the LSU effort that became known as Horse Emergency Rescue
Katrina washed ashore early Monday morning, Aug. 29; the 17th Street levee was breached by noon, but conditions were too dangerous
to conduct rescue operations for another two days.
"Then on Sept. 1., we set up the Horse Hurricane Help Line, and we started to get calls from everybody," Moore says. "Shortly
after realizing the need, we set up rescue teams (see story). So we didn't have this great plan. We just started it, and it
snowballed and grew until we were kind of coordinating the efforts."
Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, a multi-use event facility with emphasis on equestrian and 4-H activities, became a staging area
that eventually evaluated almost 400 horses. It wasn't part of the original plan, either. But as Katrina moved through the
Gulf of Mexico, the strength and span of the storm began to pique concern among planners, especially Bonnie Clark, horse unit
coordinator under the direction of state veterinarian's office in conjunction with the LSU veterinary school equine health
studies program and USDA veterinarians. She oversaw supplies, rescue operations and the return of animals with participating
groups, but her first order of business was to establish relief barns that were close enough to the disaster area to be efficient
but far enough away to weather the storm.
"I'm friends with the executive director at Lamar-Dixon, so I called and begged him to use the facility as a staging area,
and he agreed."
With that last-minute verbal commitment, she met Dr. Denny French, LSU field service professor, to establish one of the largest
equine relief centers anyone had seen. They started with nothing, not even a halter. By Sept. 1, the facility would bustle
with enough feed, supplies and clinical support for 385 horses with medical charts and electronic identification logs. With
just a few days planning with a volunteer crew, the operation was on track to convert displaced animals into discovered pets.
"We started out extremely well organized. We knew that we had 63 head coming in (Sept. 1), and we either scanned the microchips
or registered their tattoos," French says. "The microchips have been a really good thing in cataloging the horses in. It has
been a state requirement since 1994 if they don't already have some sort of lip tattoo or unique numeric number on them. That
allowed them to have some sort of a database when they came in."
Horses qualify for disaster relief
French's field service students helped run the makeshift hospital by making rounds, assessing and treating the array of lacerations
plaguing the animals.
The around-the-clock operation consumed the days and nights of many volunteers.
"I was sleeping in a stall for the first week," Clark says.
When DVM Newsmagazine spoke with French more than four weeks after the original 63 patients entered Lamar-Dixon, the staff only lost one horse
after it arrived at the facility, and the team lost one horse off the trailer. About 190 of the 385 remained.