Little animal agriculture where storm made landfall
CAMERON PARISH, Louisiana––From the animal safety perspective, Hurricane Laura could scarcely have hit in a less vulnerable location.
Reportedly the most powerful hurricane to hit coastal Louisiana since the Last Island hurricane of 1856, Hurricane Laura whirled into the coastal bayous of sparsely populated Cameron Parish in the first hours of August 27, 2020 with winds recorded at up to 150 miles per hour, driving a 10-foot tidal surge that the governors of Louisiana and Texas agreed in early warnings to residents would be “unsurvivable.”
But Cameron Parish had just 15 human residents per square mile, meaning relatively few pets were at risk, and not many farmed animals, either.
Previous hurricanes wiped out local animal agribusiness
Animal farming has not been big in Cameron Parish since Hurricane Audrey killed 300 residents, mostly members of farm families, in 1957.
The human death toll in Cameron Parish alone was half the estimated toll from Hurricane Audrey nationwide, including 192 people reported missing whose remains were never found.
Hurricane Audrey drowned from 40,000 to 50,000 cattle, along with untold thousands of pigs, poultry, horses, deer, raccoons, and even alligators, snakes, nutria, and muskrats, all good swimmers, whose remains clogged waterways for weeks afterward.
No poultry, no domestic pigs, few cattle
The Cameron Parish human population gradually recovered to about 2,000 by the time hurricanes Rita and Ike hit the community head-on in 2005 and 2008, but after Ike, which left only four functioning businesses in the crossroads county seat, dwindled to barely 400 in the 2010 census.
With four days’ warning to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Laura, the few remaining Cameron Parish farmers rushed to harvest their crops of rice, soy beans, and sugar cane ahead of the storm.
“Poultry production continues to be the largest animal agricultural industry in Louisiana,” according to the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center, “and is second only to forestry in total income production for all agricultural commodities.”
Yet the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center lists no poultry production facilities of any sort that were in the path of Hurricane Laura south of Lake Charles.
“Moved herds early”
Cattle owners, now sparse in the area, “learned about moving their herds early after hurricanes Rita and Ike in 2008,” reported Bruce Schultz of the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center.
AgCenter regional beef cattle specialist Vince Deshotel, AgCenter agent Bradley Pousson in Cameron Parish, and AgCenter agent Jimmy Meaux in Calcasieu Parish, just to the north, told Schultz that roundups of cattle pastured in local marshland had begun with the first warnings that Hurricane Laura was coming. The cattle were mostly trucked to rented temporary pastures in upper Louisiana, far from the coast.
More water coming
Hitting as a Category Four hurricane, a step above Audrey but a step below Katrina in 2005, which peaked at Category Five, Hurricane Laura rapidly slowed to Category Three as it moved inland, hitting Lake Charles hard before weakening into a tropical storm and drifting northeast into Arkansas.
But tropical storms, while they lack the intensity of hurricanes, may deposit even more rainfall and cause even more flooding. Tropical storms also tend to spin off twisters, which can do hurricane-like damage over much smaller areas.
Further, the water from tropical storms falling over any portion of the Mississippi River basin will come back down tributaries and the Mississippi itself within days, if not hours, potentially meaning new rounds of flooding anywhere along the Mississippi where a flood gate or levee may be topped or breached.
Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana after killing nearly two dozen people on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, including 20 in Haiti and three in the Dominican Republic. Only six people were reported dead in the U.S. within the first 24 hours after Hurricane Laura made landfall, but the fate of from 50 to 150 members of farm families who refused evacuation from coastal parishes at risk, including to look after livestock, remained mostly unknown.
Warned the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, “In the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, please be aware that rising waters may force wildlife to become displaced as they seek higher ground from their flooded habitat.
“If you see wildlife in residential and commercial areas, please keep these tips in mind: Avoid areas where displaced wildlife has taken refuge. Avoid interaction with and do not feed displaced wildlife. Avoid roadways near flooded areas to reduce likelihood of disturbance and collisions with wildlife.”
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries mentioned black bears, alligators, venomous snakes, deer, and feral pigs as “species of concern” whom residents might encounter in unexpected places.
“The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Enforcement Division is ready to deploy for potential search and rescue missions,” the agency added in media releases.
More than 170 game wardens, “all equipped with vessels and trucks,” the agency said, were “staged across the state ready to roll into flooded areas.”
The first deployment reached Lake Charles by mid-morning on August 27, 2020.
“Identify higher ground”
The Texas Animal Health Commission, meanwhile, aware that the worst conditions for farmed animals might still be ahead, advised farmers to “Prepare and evacuate as advised. Maintain an inventory of the livestock on your ranch. Have identification for all livestock,” such as “ear tags, tattoos, or brands.
“Identify alternate water and/or power sources,” the Texas Animal Health Commission suggested, aware that floods often bring the paradox of “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” because of the combination of contamination with electricity outages that render pumps useless. Among about 800,000 people who were left without electricity after Hurricane Laura, those in rural areas were likely to have service restored last.
“If you are in a flood zone,” the Texas Animal Health Commission said, “identify higher ground to relocate your livestock to. Make available vehicles and trailers needed for transporting and supporting each type of animal,” along with “experienced handlers and drivers. Ensure destinations have food, fresh water, veterinary care and handling equipment.”
Though much of this sounds like obvious advice, the animal agriculture sector has only begun to recognize the need for disaster preparation in the 15 years since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Then-Humane Society of Missouri chief executive Eric Hansen recommended in 1937, after witnessing catastrophic flooding along the Mississippi River, that the humane community should pull together to create an on-call team to rescue animals from such situations, but humane societies also put little emphasis on disaster preparedness until Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992.
By the time Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of New Orleans, most major national and regional animal advocacy organizations had disaster response protocols in place and had at least some staff members trained in disaster relief work.
Practiced humane response
After Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Harvey in 2017, and many others, the major humane societies in the Gulf Coast region from Houston to New Orleans are among the most practiced and best prepared in the world.
The Houston SPCA, as in the past, immediately stockpiled pet food donated by Hill’s Pet Nutrition Disaster Relief Network for distribution to displaced pet keepers and other animal rescue organizations in the hurricane-hit areas as needed.
The Houston SPCA also evacuated 130 dogs and cats to the Austin Humane Society, and sent 27 baby squirrels to Austin Wildlife Rescue, to make shelter space available for incoming animals from closer to the disaster scene.
Some of the space thus opened up was soon occupied by 81 animals, including a three-legged pet mouse, relayed to Houston from the Galveston Island Humane Society.
Also in Austin, the boarding, grooming, and training business A Crate Escape LLC reportedly housed 200 displaced animals after offering two free nights of boarding for one pet each belonging to hurricane evacuees.
Transfers to Virginia
The Montgomery County Animal Shelter, in Conroe, Texas, an outlying Houston suburb, flew 130 animals to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA in Virginia.
The Humane Society of the U.S. told television reporter Kari Barrows of WLOS News in Asheville, North Carolina, that it had transported 20 dogs from the Humane Society of South Mississippi in Gulfport to Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, the Asheville Humane Society and the Humane Society of Charlotte.
Altogether, the Humane Society of South Mississippi said, it “transported out 141 pets to partner shelters in states including Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas,” leaving the shelter still with 192 dogs and cats on hand as Hurricane Laura first approached, and then missed the Gulfport region.
The Humane Society of the U.S. also relayed 12 animals from the Beaumont, Texas city shelter to San Antonio Pets Alive, in San Antonio, Texas.
Wings of Rescue
Wings of Rescue animal transport charity vice president Erin Robbins told ABC television reporter Matteo Iadonisi that she had made 27 flights from Louisiana and Texas during the 2020 hurricane season so far, evacuating 1,300 animals altogether.
Seventy-nine of those animals went to the Brandywine Valley SPCA on the eve of the Hurricane Laura landfall.
The Louisiana SPCA, in New Orleans, sent 33 dogs on a midnight ride to the Humane Educational Society shelter in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 500 miles to the northeast.
“Some of our feline friends have been welcomed at the Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter,” in Houma, the Louisiana SPCA added on Facebook.
Houma is 57 miles southwest of New Orleans, closer to where Hurricane Laura hit.
Thus the logic behind that move is elusive; but the Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter does appear to be on somewhat higher ground.
Even with those relocations of animals, the Louisiana SPCA added “We still have over 400 animals depending on us to care for them.”
The also-New Orleans-based Humane Society of Louisiana said it was “renting extra vans and mobilizing our national adoption partners to get animals out ahead of the storm, mostly from small rural shelters and rescues in the hurricane’s path.”
Chimps & pit bulls
Organizations housing hard-to-handle and dangerous animals had no choice but to hunker down and weather the storm as best they could.
Said Chimp Haven, of Shreveport, Louisiana, hours before Hurricane Laura made landfall, “We’re preparing for extremely high winds and heavy storms throughout the day on Thursday. This evening the chimps will be brought indoors and we’ll have increased 24-hour staff coverage to ensure they are safe and cared for. Our maintenance and care teams at the sanctuary are equipped with backup generators and supplies to see them through the next 48 hours.”
Exulted the Villalobos Rescue Center of New Orleans, specializing in pit bulls, the morning after Hurricane Laura moved through, “We made it! As soon as the rain slows down,” the Villalobos Rescue Center posted to Facebook, “all of the dogs will go back into their regular spots and we will begin the normal rain clean-up.
“As usual,” the Villalobos Rescue Center added, “we got in our ‘normal’ last minute array of owners dumping their ‘inconvenient’ dogs before a storm.”
Other national organizations
The North Shore Animal League, of Port Washington, New York, on the evening of August 27, 2020 announced that it “is accepting donations for food and supplies to help pets displaced by Hurricane Laura.”
Code 3 Associates, a specialized technical animal rescue team headquartered in Longmont, Colorado, which usually works under contract to other organizations, posted on August 26, 2020 that it was ready to deploy to the Hurricane Laura disaster region, but by sundown on August 27, 2020 had offered no further updates.
Red Rover, of Sacramento, California, formerly called United Animal Nations, posted a list of “Resources for natural disaster evacuees,” and said “Our hearts are with all the people and animals impacted by the California wildfires and by Hurricane Laura in Texas and Louisiana.”