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'As a horseman, it would want to make you cry' Hurricane Andrew claimed more than 1,000 horses


HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Andrew has been well-documented: 41 people dead, $20 billion in damages, 160,000 people homeless. In light of the human tragedy, the deaths of more than 1,000 horses are merely statistical footnotes.

Yet two months after the Aug. 24 storm, residents of the Homestead area still have vivid memories of how horses were caught up in the destruction.

Horses fleeing the hurricane ran into canals, drowning by the dozens. Others were killed by flying debris and falling trees. Surviving animals foraged through back yards -- maimed, hungry and thirsty.

"As a horseman, it would want to make you cry," said Randy Sherling, president of the Affiliated Horse Owners of Florida. "It was as if God took the whole place and put it through a blender."

When racing fans tune into the Breeders' Cup telecast on Saturday, they won't see evidence of the storm's wrath.

Gulfstream Park, site of the event in north Miami, is only about an hour north of the destruction in south Dade County. Yet the track is well-manicured and beautiful.

Hurricane Andrew downed a few palm trees and blew out some glass windows at the track, but the plant was largely unscathed, as were the high-strung racehorses that at the time were stabled down the road at Calder Race Course.

Both tracks, as well as the state's large thoroughbred breeding and training farms located farther north in Ocala, were on the periphery of Andrew's virulent force.

Most of the horses affected by Andrew were not thoroughbreds. They were mostly pleasure horses -- animals whose owners have small ranches or keep them at boarding barns in the Redlands, a large agricultural area where produce such as avocados, strawberries and mangos are produced south of Miami.

Sherling, 55, said that veterinarians worked almost around the clock to save injured horses. Hundreds of volunteers swept into action in the aftermath of the storm.

Florida had no plan to care for large animals in the event of a large-scale disaster, Sherling said. "Neither does any other state.

"When we first arrived on the scene you just have to imagine what it looked like -- you can't really understand it unless you saw it," Sherling said. "But there was no power, no phones, no electricity. The place had been leveled. It was total bedlam and it rained for five straight days after the storm. In some instances, there was nothing left standing. Barns, fencing all were gone at some farms in total annihilation."

The horses that had the best chance of surviving were the ones that stayed in barns, "even though buildings collapsed on them," Sherling said. "Some horses turned out in fields panicked and ran to keep away from the storm, and that's when many ran into the canals, which in some instances are 15 feet deep."

Two emergency equine centers were set up -- one to house and collect horses on Krome Avenue in Homestead and another center to treat seriously wounded animals at the old Tropical Park Racetrack.

When horses were brought to Krome Avenue, a team of veterinarians inspected them and determined where they would go until they were claimed by their owners.

Sherling provided the following statistics:

* Owners in Dade County moved approximately 1,000 to 1,500 horses out of the area before the storm hit.

* Of the 2,500 to 3,000 horses left, about 1,000 were killed. Another 250 were injured so severely, they were euthanized.

* AHOOF processed between 600 to 700 horses after the storm. All were tagged and photographed. Most owners have claimed their animals by now, but there are still about 25 horses without homes, boarded at various farms in the region. AHOOF has collected about $250,000 worth of hay, grain and medical supplies. The Tropical Park and Krome Avenue emergency centers have been closed.

* It is believed that about 100 horses were rounded up by meat haulers and taken to processing plants in Florida, Georgia or South Carolina, Sherling said.

The Army burned the carcasses of most dead large animals, Sherling said. The ones in the canals, "They opened the gates and let them drift out to sea," he said.

Karin Still, who works at Robbie's Feed & Supply Inc., in Homestead, said she saw eight drowned horses in a canal by her farm. "My husband pulled three others out, guiding them to boat ramps where they could get their footing," she said.

The main goal now, Sherling said, is to rebuild fences so that people can contain their animals once they get them home.

The human losses are still vivid for everyone, and Gulfstream Park is doing its part. Proceeds from the Breeders' Cup Gala Friday night will go to provide relief for hurricane victims.

To help care for surviving horses, donations can be sent to:

AHOOF Equine Relief Fund

c/o National Bank of Detroit

1320 E. Venice Ave.

Venice, Fla. 34292

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