TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns by Ellen Rosenberg on Tropical Storm Isaac and the equestrian community.
All eyes, as they say, were on the tropics as Isaac formed in the Atlantic on Aug. 21. Its path, for a while, seemed headed for South Florida. But, finally, it curved south and west, then a little further west, and we were out of the dreaded cone; however, as it turns out, we were not out of danger. A large area of feeder bands broke off from the main storm and decided, like an obnoxious relative, to stay well after his welcome had worn out.
The bands first arrived, as predicted, late Sunday night. From 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. Monday morning, the rain lashed down, accompanied by savage lightning and house-rattling thunder, dropping a reported 8 to 10 inches of rain during those three hours. In the morning, there was some standing water, about what you’d expect after a storm, but nothing dire. Power was out in some neighborhoods, roads were puddled: the usual.
But this was no usual deluge. A series of training thunderstorms on Monday and Tuesday, eventually dumping up to 18 inches of rain in some areas, concentrated their fury over the western communities, especially Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, The Acreage, Loxahatchee Groves, White Fences, Fox Trail and Deer Run. The canals, already full from the initial rains, filled and overflowed. In some neighborhoods, the water had no place to drain, and so it sat and deepened. Homes became islands, and people were trapped; and the horses, so many of the horses who lived in those communities, were stranded, some standing in deep water with no high ground in sight.
And the water sat. And sat. And sat. People, and their horses, needed help.
“My yard flooded, but my barn’s pretty high, so it was OK,” said Alyce Michelbrink, president of the Palm Beach County Mounted Posse. “A lot of individuals and groups, including the posse and the Acreage Horseman’s Association, have been fantastic, reaching out to people by phone and the Internet to help find dry stalls for flooded horses, and hay and feed for people who lost everything.”
However, that was not the whole story.
“I’m personally disappointed with Palm Beach County’s lack of response, especially during the first couple of days,” Michelbrink added. “I understand they have a disaster plan, but the one closest county facility that could have safely housed a lot of horses wasn’t in that plan: the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center. This was a catastrophe, a desperate situation, and it required desperate measures.”
Instead, people were directed to bring or send their horses to two private facilities: Palms Meadow, in Boynton Beach, or Sunshine Meadows, in Delray Beach. Michelbrink noted that many would have had to drive more than an hour to reach those places, but that the county equestrian center is much closer.
“On Monday, Aug. 27, I e-mailed Eric Call of Palm Beach County Parks & Recreation, but I never got a response,” Michelbrink said. “I spoke with Linda Wirtz, assistant manager at Jim Brandon, asking if those barns could open, offering for posse members to help coordinate and support it for any and all horse owners in need, run the barns, stay there for security, check incoming trailers for current Coggins tests, all the same stuff we routinely do during a show. People were willing to pay for stalls, like they do at a show. Many people kept calling me; the phone never stopped.”
Despite the demand, it was not to be.
“I knew it was not Linda’s decision, but she said no, using Jim Brandon would not be possible. She knew people were desperate to get their horses’ feet out of the water, but there was nothing she could do. ‘This isn’t a boarding facility,’ she told me. ‘We don’t have the ability to support something like that.’ That was a really frustrating answer,” Michelbrink complained. “The posse had a show, later canceled, scheduled to run at Jim Brandon the following Labor Day weekend, so we wouldn’t even be disrupting their schedule. I explained that letting people bring their horses early would be no different than running a longer show, when people routinely do leave their horses overnight, park their trailers there, and leave a night-check person.”
This whole situation has led Michelbrink to wonder why.
“I set forth all the possibilities to Linda and Eric, wondering, do they not understand horses’ needs? Typically, horses are fed once, twice or three times a day. People have to be there to make sure they’re all right, clean their stalls, check their water buckets. I felt we were making legitimate requests, but the answer remained no, and people were directed to the other, further, venues,” she said. “That was tough for many, trying to find ways to haul their horses that far in terrible — in some cases, impossible — driving conditions to unfamiliar barns. Then, they’d have to travel back and forth a couple of times a day to care for the horses.”
Thanks to the Internet and social media, many people managed to find dry stalls a lot closer, with luckier, unflooded friends or neighbors.
“But that’s not what should have happened. I feel as if the county should have stepped up and opened this local facility. What if this storm had happened during the show season and a lot of people with big names and big money were here? I wonder if the outcome would have been different. The local horse community supports these facilities year-round. The posse holds all our shows at Jim Brandon. We just wanted safe, dry stalls close to home,” Michelbrink said. “I hope some changes in this policy are made for any future storms. A lot of people would greatly appreciate it. During emergencies, all kinds of county facilities, including schools, are used as shelters, and some also allow pets. I don’t understand why the county equestrian center’s 128 stalls were closed to horses. Seeing the world in black-and-white is OK, but sometimes you need to see gray and bend a little… It’s only the start of September; we still have three months of storm season left. What’s going to happen next time?”
Peggy Kovacs, a past president of the posse, was more philosophical.
“This storm took everyone by surprise,” she said. “You can’t lay blame with anyone for what happened. It’s not like it was a hurricane, and we would all have prepared for that. This one snuck up on us. However, it should serve as a wake-up call to everyone.”
Kovacs also works with the Sunshine State Horse Council (www.sshc.org), which offers information on disaster planning for country property as well as emergency equine evacuation information. As for the Jim Brandon facility not being made available, she pointed out that probably it had to do with liability.
“Too many lawyers involved,” she snorted. “It’s a shame there’s so much red tape. I dealt with the county on a lot of issues over the years. It’s a slow-moving bureaucracy, a process that takes time to get anything done. You have to work through the levels. I have a feeling that the ‘no’ we got may not be a permanent ‘no.’ This would be a good time to start a dialogue concerning future plans.”