Journal on the Road

Disaster in the South

May 4, 2011

More help is needed as horsemen and women are among those rebuilding after the deadly tornadoes of April 27, 2011.

Rescuers treat horses injured by a tornado that struck the 5W Ranch equine therapeutic facility in Alabama on April 27. (Marian Brakefield photo, used with permission)

On April 27, 2011, 312 tornadoes – the most seen in a single day in United States history –  swept across the Southeast, wreaking havoc, ruining communities and taking lives. More than 350 people are confirmed dead, more than 65 in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama, alone.

Donna Preskitt and the crew of her 5W Ranch horse rehabilitation facility in Ohatchee, Alabama, will never forget it.

The farm had settled down after a first wave of storms, and the crew had gone home. Donna had just finished feeding when she got a call from a client – racing Quarter Horse breeder and owner Dan Lucas of Lucas Racing Inc., in Newmarket, Maryland. An avid storm-watcher, Dan told her to take cover: The 5W was in the path of a tornado that had just ripped through Birmingham.

Donna raced to the homes of her employees and gathered everyone together – eight people, including one baby – into the main barn. They secured the barn doors as best they could, and took cover in the facility’s underwater treadmill.

“I had overfilled it,” Donna said. “It was warm, everybody got down in there. We were up to our necks in water. We held onto the bars and rode through it.”

It saved their lives as the reinforced concrete barn was torn “apart like it was made of Legos.”

With the spring wildfires in the Southwest and the recent tornado and storm damage in the Southeast, there are thousands of people in need of assistance, including AQHA members and their horses. Find out Where You Can Help.

Immediately after climbing out of the barn wreckage, the crew went to work to dig out and treat the facility’s horses, still in the midst of rain and hail, at first. They implemented Donna’s disaster plan that they had drilled many times. Donna had ample emergency supplies stored in three protected, separate locations.

“With our emergency plan in place, there were 30 halters, 28 lead ropes, medical supplies, bandages, leg wraps, tourniquets and every kind of medication that I’m allowed to have,” she says. “People really need to know that … when they take stewardship of these animals, they need to have a plan and practice the plan.”

Every horse had been medicated and stabilized within an hour and a half, though they were not all completely free from the wreckage. Veterinarians Dr. Scott Owens and Dr. Kristin Vargas were soon onsite. (Read more)

It took chainsaws and heavy equipment to free several of the horses; of the 42 housed at the 5W, 40 survived. The two that didn’t belonged to Donna.

“It would have been so much worse if Dan had not taken the time to warn me,” Donna says. “Human lives were lost (at other homes) on our street.”

Volunteers, neighbors and horse industry friends rolled in to help with the horses and clean-up. Friends and clients Clarice Cooper and Ryan Shotkoski of Cooper Quarter Horses in Maysville, Georgia – four hours away – brought in hay, feed and water troughs and hauled home15 horses to care for. Friends Bill and Marion Brakefield packed up everything they could salvage from the now-condemned barn’s kitchen. The list of help goes on.

A longtime AQHA member, Donna has personally managed the care and rehabilitation of hundreds of horses over the years – all breeds, all disciplines. The American Quarter Horses that have benefitted from her care range from AQHA world champions to top racehorses. Some of the most lamented lost items include her meticulous case files – dating back to 1980 – that she hoped would become a book on the subject of rehabilitative care and her one-of-a-kind, self-designed underwater hydraulic treadmill.

But now she’s facing the challenge of her life: the rehab of her life’s work.

“You are talking to someone who was spared, for whatever reason,” Donna says. “And still has a mission. My life’s work is scattered over 375 acres here. … I walk by, and I find one little piece of something. … I’ve collected bits and pieces of broken things … everything I own is in two Rubbermaid totes.”

She adds: “I’ve tried to be a strength … you’ve got to believe in God. I really believe that is what this is about.”

Many horsemen and women have had their lives forever changed affected by last week’s destructive storms. Cutting competitor Lynn Davis of West Point, Mississippi, was killed when a tornado hit his truck as he drove to assist another tornado victim. AQHA 20-year breeder Kyle Hughes’ farm in Meadowview, Virginia, was destroyed by a tornado.

Several AQHA affiliates and members have set up places where you can send financial assistance or find out how and where you can help directly. Spread the word and get in action – Help Out Where You Can.

There are many stories of horse people helping in the immediate aftermath – but more help is needed. To see where you can help, some of the best sources are your regional or state AQHA affiliate associations. For example, the Tennessee Quarter Horse Association is coordinating gift cards for the Ellis family of Cleveland, Tennessee.

A fund for Donna has been set up: Victims of 5W Ranch, c/o First National Bank of Talledega, Talledega, AL, 35160.

One week later, the debris is gone at the 5W, all horses have returned home or are at veterinary clinics, and there is no food, water or electricity. Donna and her crew’s families are living in tents and borrowed trailers. Donna has hit roadblocks from federal agencies and her insurance company.

“I have exhausted every fund I have … but I’m alive,” she says. “There’s a reason for this to happen, and what I’m supposed to learn from this, I’m just asking to be shown, but right now, I need some help and guidance. I need to get back to work.”

The slide show below shows images that Marian Brakefield took during the storm’s aftermath; images used with permission. (Click on the image for the captions).

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Christine Hamilton
Editor – general, rail & pattern, halter, health, breeding

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