Surviving the Unexpected
Natural disasters put horse owners to the test.
By Larri Jo Starkey | May 8, 2011
The American Quarter Horse Journal
Disasters don’t take breaks just because you’re at a horse show.
Ask Nickey Smith, who was competing at the 2005 Bayer Select World Championship Show when Hurricane Katrina savaged his family farm.
Disasters don’t take breaks just because you have high hopes for a horse in training.
Ask John B. Curtis, whose best racing filly was injured in a wildfire in central Oklahoma.
Disasters don’t take breaks, period. But a good plan can help you and your horses weather the storm.
Ask Claire Cornett, who evacuated her horses from the Mississippi Gulf Coast before Katrina hit.
Few people expected Hurricane Katrina to land as it did and act as it did in 2005.
Count AQHA Professional Horseman Tom McBeath among that number. He was in the middle of the Region Nine Experience in Jackson, Mississippi, when Katrina began its fatal approach to the coast. The hurricane had been predicted to hit farther west than it did.
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“I’m there at the horse show, and I have no idea until Friday afternoon,” he says. “They said, ‘You know, that storm is going to hit,’ and then Saturday it became a little more realistic, and Sunday it became extremely realistic.”
The Mississippi State Fairgrounds are an evacuation point for horses, and trailers were pulling in as most of the Experience participants were clearing out.
“There were only about 60 horses that stayed at the fairgrounds,” Tom says. “Many of them were able to go to local barns or farms.”
That Southern hospitality has been practiced in the past when Gulf Coast residents have needed to evacuate, he says. But generally those people who evacuated have been able to leave after the storm. Not this time.
“We were all without power,” Tom says. “On the minimum, most people were without power for four or five days. Some people were without power for weeks.”
One of those people was Claire Cornett of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who was competing at the Region Nine Experience. She left her competition horse, Bobby Sox, at the fairgrounds and returned to Hattiesburg to pick up the rest of her animals and her husband’s mother, who was on oxygen.
“It ended up, the barn we had our horses in (in Hattiesburg) was destroyed by two oak trees,” Claire says. “We couldn’t go home for two weeks.”
Claire’s horses were safe because her husband, Robert, lived through Hurricane Camille and is a fanatic about watching the weather.
“We’ve always known that if we were going to get a storm with over 75 mph winds, we move our horses,” she says. “Anytime they say ‘bad storm coming,’ Robert is ready to get out of there.”
Claire found a family of horse owners on the fairgrounds in Jackson, but she said even some of those who evacuated weren’t prepared for the storm. They didn’t have feed or water for their horses.
“It was an experience for all of us,” she says. “I couldn’t have had nicer people go through it with. I appreciate Jackson for letting us stay.”
Nickey Smith of Franklinton, Louisiana, was driving to Amarillo to compete at Select World when he started hearing about Katrina.
“By the time we got to Amarillo, we were listening to the radio all the way and could tell it was going to be bad,” Nickey says.
His son, daughter-in-law and grandson gathered at his home about 50 miles north of New Orleans, and his son hooked a generator to a tractor.
“I talked to them Monday (morning) about 6:30, and the storm was coming ashore. I told them they would probably be without electricity for a couple of days,” Nickey says. “The biggest problem is we had a lot of oak trees. Notice I said ‘had.’ My house was not touched.”
His barn roof, though, rolled up like a carpet as the family farm sustained 160 mph winds for six hours.
Nickey didn’t know any of that.
“All communication lines were down, cell phones, land lines, there was no communication whatsoever,” he says. “My little girl drove to Baton Rouge on Wednesday night to call me and let me know everyone was OK.”
His daughter told him to stay in Amarillo because there wasn’t any gasoline available in Louisiana, and people wouldn’t take credit cards for what fuel was available.
So Nickey continued competing, making the finals in working cow horse. But he couldn’t stand being away from home and started packing.
“On Thursday, I went around and bought four generators, water, gas, shovels and extension cords,” he says. He drove home.
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“We had a tearful reunion and then went to work,” he says. “My horses fared very well. You don’t know whether to leave them in the barn or turn them out and have them maybe get hit by a car, but the horses came through. They turned their butts to the wind, put their heads down low and every now and then shook the water out of their ears.”
Nickey’s well can run off a generator, so he didn’t have difficulty getting water to the horses. What was more problematic was fuel for the generator.
“My distributor was good and put me on the list,” he says. “When we were coming home across Interstate 20, there was a policeman at every service station. That started 200 miles away. Once you got to Brookhaven, Mississippi, there was no more gas and no power to turn the gas on.”
Come back next week for Part 2 of Surviving the Unexpected! Also, be sure to read about a more recent disaster: the tornadoes that ravaged the Southeast at the end of April.