Friday, November 30, 2012

The Six Phases of Sandy

Originally published in Horse Directory, December 2012
By Tom Gumbrecht

"So that's what the noise was about last night" - Bella
 To those of us who keep horses, the forecast of a hurricane or other severe weather can carry an extra level of anxiety.  In addition to the safety of ourselves and our families, we also have to consider the well-being of our large, not-easily-evacuated equine companions.  We realize we may be forced to consider the choice to yield to pressure to evacuate and leave our horses to fend for themselves, or to go with our instincts to stay and protect them as best we can, no matter what.  Hurricane Sandy was not my first major storm since having horses at home.  In dealing with the threat of potentially catastrophic weather, I seem to go through a process of six phases:  Awareness, Denial, Fear, Action, Focus, and Acceptance.  The time elapsed between the first phases was days; between the final phases only minutes..

Awareness comes as I hear the first TV and internet inklings of the possibility of a severe weather system.  I react like a horse hearing a sound that may be of concern: I turn my ear toward it.  My concern is there, but it is in the background. At some point my awareness morphs into denial. The hype of TV or internet weather services seems to go “over the top” and use terms like “doomsday”, “monster storm”, and “perfect storm”.  I steadfastly refuse to get sucked into what I perceive might be ratings- driven drama. My seeming apathy masquerades as skepticism but has its roots in fear. 

A cracking tree is scary for horse or human!
When fear takes over, I begin to think... “it might actually happen!”  Maybe it’s not weather drama this time. What if it’s true?  What will happen if it’s as bad as the threats suggest? What will happen to my horses and other animals? My mind rapidly builds a huge wall of worst-case scenarios, but eventually moves me forward into action. I gather supplies, gas up the generator, clean the gutters, move vehicles from under trees, buy batteries, and put ID tags on the horses.  I set out old hay bales to protect the riding ring from erosion and check the barn door latches, as they are rarely used.  Motion for the sake of motion is how it generally begins, as it satisfies the need to “do something.” At some point, my motions become more organized.

For me, in some cases, organized motion precedes organized thought:  it allows me to focus.  I experience clarity of thought and efficiency of action. When I am focused, things seem to just fall into place… and when they do, I gain acceptance. I accept that it’s happening.  I’m prepared.  I’m committed, and I’m calm. What will happen, will happen. I’m glad my animals have me, and I them.  I believe that their best shot is with me.  I feel a sense of oneness with my charges; they sense it and settle into an alert calmness also.  And so we wait…

At 3:30 Monday afternoon, through my window I see the tall, sturdy old trees on the property across the street bending nearly horizontal. This storm is no joke. A snap, a crash and the lights go out. My electrical service is on the driveway, and a large tree is on the garage roof.  I go out to survey the damage, and connect the generator.  Technically the storm isn’t even here yet, and its power is incredible.  My wife Mary had been called in to work at her job as a nurse at the hospital, and so it is me and our three dogs huddled closely in the den listening to the radio for updates. Reports are sketchy, disjointed, and not particularly informative yet I sit listening, mesmerized, and cannot turn it off.  I begin to consider the safest place in the house to be, and believe that I’m probably in it.  At 7:00 pm, another huge snap and crash in the rear of the property upsets the dogs and I dress to go out and investigate.  A large tree had fallen across the farm driveway, and sat covering half of the front paddock, smashing 30’ of fence on the way down.  I retreat from the winds into the barn to check on how my horses are tolerating the meteorological mayhem outside their windows.  DannyBoy, our big gregarious Paint, seems unaffected, which is not surprising to me.  I find it curious that our normally somewhat high strung young OTTB Mare, Lola, has kept her wits about her also.  Bella, our Arabian mare, is visibly upset, uncharacteristically pacing circles in her stall. I stay with her for a while in her stall.  She stops the pacing but I feel the tension in her neck that she has, again uncharacteristically, allowed me to cradle in my arms. After some time has passed, I give them hay to take their focus off of the crazed howling of the wind just outside.  It seems to work.  I hate to leave but I need to check on my dogs in the house.  My female German Shepherd Dog, Zoe, does not do well with the intense, strange noises that the high winds are pummeling the house with.  Dusty, our male Labrador and Hailey, a female lab mix, seem unaffected.  They all seem to want to be on my lap at the same time.  At another time it would be funny; now I find it comforting.  I wait with my lamp, my dogs and my radio until after midnight, when the reports say the very worst of the storm has passed.  I do one more barn check, and everyone seems to be ok. My one concern is that Bella has not dropped manure, but she is drinking water and has good gut sounds.  I feel confident enough to say good night to my charges.

Bella surveys the damage...
I drift in and out of sleep.  An occasional gust is strong enough to shake the house on its foundation, and Zoe wakes me, barking furiously, each time that happens.  Dawn breaks and I get up and check the fences before letting the dogs out. I can see that the vehicles and trailers are safe, but the tree that fell into the paddock is actually two trees, the one at the bottom of the pile being of fairly substantial girth.  I feed the dogs, send Mary a text with the report that we have survived, and go down to the barn. Everyone there is fine, but Bella has still not left any manure.  I put her on a longe line and trot her for twenty minutes; she eagerly moves forward with no encouragement so I put her back in her stall as I isolate the downed trees from the paddock with rope and jump standards.  When I go back inside, I see that she has left a gift that only a horseman can appreciate: a large pile of manure on the floor of her stall!

A neighbor later comes over, and armed with two chain saws, we have the trees cut up and out of the paddock and the fence repaired in a couple of hours. An electrician by trade, I put the electrical service back together and connect the still de-energized power lines.  Without TV or newspaper, I have not yet seen images of the destruction that had befallen the island, but within hours my phone begins ringing off the hook with pleas from customers to help them to restore electrical service.  That ends up to be just the prelude to a 12 hour/ day, 14 day straight electrical marathon that was to follow.  The days that ensued were surreal, working under headlights in third-world like conditions with whatever equipment and material that could be scrounged.

My reprieve was to be found in the beginning and the end of each day, exhausted, overworked and overcommitted, yet stopping first at the barn to feed, care for, and simply be with our horses.  They tethered me back to reality just by being there, and being who they were.  They have no care or concern for what is going on outside of their stalls, paddocks and arena.  Their needs are the same today as they were on the day before the storm: hay, grain, clean water, the shelter of a clean stall, some attention and some exercise.  By expecting, even demanding routine, they brought me back to normalcy every morning, and every evening. least for a little while.  That is the way my horses give their gifts:  they demand routine of me, the execution of which provides the gift of normalcy.  It’s the best deal I have ever made.

A feral cat gives up her hobo existence for a night to ride out the hurricane in the tack room..

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