"You rescued me when I thought nobody would...you gave me everything and asked for nothing." â Charles Martin, Thunder and Rain
The winds were fierce and the rain torrential as Hurricane Ike reached the coast of Texas Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. Nearly 3,000 people needed to be rescued from flood waters, 37 lost their lives and some are still missing. Thousands of homes were destroyed, many more damaged, and as many as 10,000 animals, from pets to livestock, were scattered across the roadways and byways from Galveston to the Louisiana border.
"Everything we owned was gone â the house, the barn and all the animals. We can rebuild the house; the cows and the goats we could replace, but the horses, they all had a name, they were special, and we were very lucky to get most of them back."
Those were the words of an unidentified rural Texas resident whose property was devastated by Ike, telling his survivor tale to a Houston television station news crew just days after the disaster. It was one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar stories.
Disaster stories like this inspired Dr. Dee Ellis to consider the very real challenges of Texans who face life-changing events and caused him to wonder what could be done to bring relief to many who suffer so much.
Ellis, Texas State Veterinarian and Executive Director of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), worked with local officials and Ike survivors on animal issues following that storm.
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"There were so many displaced animals on the highway between Houston and Beaumont, as many as ten thousand. And then it happened again in 2011 with so many Texas wildfires around Bastrop and in West Texas and around Fort Worth when animals were turned lose to roam. When fires are coming, ranchers have no choice but to cut their fences, and suddenly you have animals loose on roads and in the back country," he explained.
Response to tragedy
Tragic events like these gave Ellis the idea to form an emergency response team that could deal with major animal issues related to unexpected disasters. In August 2012, Ellis and the TAHC, the State's lead agency for animal issues in disasters, announced its new Horseback Emergency Response Team.
The team is comprised of TAHC livestock inspectors and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mounted patrol inspectors, whose primary role is to locate, contain, identify, and move abandoned, stray, or injured livestock in the aftermath of a disaster.
"There has been some research done on this. People's activities and movement are influenced by their animals, whether they are small companion animals or large animals, and they often end up putting themselves in danger. We recognized that we needed a way to help deal with such animal issues during an emergency, which would not only make animals a lot safer but ultimately their owners as well," Ellis added.
He said as an agency that deals with animal issues and safety, TAHC has resources available to do something about the challenges associated with natural disasters in Texas.
"We have cowboys readily available, people willing to improvise and adapt in a disaster situation. You can't micro-manage a disaster; you need people to get the job done," he said, adding the Response Team is a first-response effort to make this happen.
Ellis says while cowboys remain faithful to the standards by which they are known, such things as honesty and loyalty, in modern times they also are computer savvy and capable of operating GPS navigation—high tech cowboys more capable of performing in a disaster situation than the cowboys of storybook days, yet maintaining the traits of fealty and true grit for which they are best known.
El es muy bueno para cabalgar el rio - meaning, "He'll do to ride the river with' which in Texan means, 'I'd trust him with my life." â Charles Martin, Thunder and Rain
But while these cowboys are ready and willing to load up their horses in trailers and report to whatever area needs their service the most to ride the countryside in search of lost animals, they do not limit themselves to horseback.
"We are ready in a moments notice to dispatch to every corner of Texas or any state along the Gulf Coast or elsewhere if there is a need. We have made that known to other emergency officials in other states. And we are not just limited to animal rescues or rounding up strays but are willing to help out with human rescues or search and rescue. We will get off our horses and direct traffic or help out law enforcement if necessary," Ellis said.
No hurricanes of late
Since Texas had been fortunate enough to escape serious hurricanes disasters since the team was formed, Ellis says they are constantly working out details of the type and scope of emergency responses they might make. Recently the team staged a mock “call to action” on the Texas border near Zapata to gauge response time and preparedness.
"We have worked training exercises and have met and talked with other agencies such as the Texas Rangers, Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Customs Border Protection and Security units, and stand ready to respond to emergencies whether they are related to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, border security issues or, of course, animal emergencies," Ellis said.
A cowboy at heart who was raised near Comanche, Texas, with ties to several areas across the state, Ellis is no stranger to the need for serious emergency response.
Raised with a farming and dairy background, he completed his animal science degree at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos and later worked as a TAHC animal health inspector. In 1984, he obtained his doctorate of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University.
After a stint as a veterinarian around Gonzales, he returned to the TAHC as a field veterinarian in Wharton during some of the toughest battles to eradicate cattle brucellosis. Recognized for his leadership and innovation, Ellis was promoted in 1986 to area director for Central Texas, a position he held for 18 years. In 2002, Dr. Ellis completed a master’s degree in Public Administration from Texas State University. In 2003, he transferred to the TAHC’s Austin headquarters as the staff veterinarian to oversee the statewide cattle tuberculosis (TB) testing of dairies and purebred beef cattle. A year later was named assistant state veterinarian.
He was detailed to Great Britain during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, helped eradicate exotic Newcastle disease in California and Texas in 2003, and worked on the Texas avian influenza outbreak in 2004. He is a foreign animal disease diagnostician, and has broad experience in emergency management and epidemiology.
The TAHC team also performs other emergency response duties if requested by local and state officials. The team of approximately 30 responders enhances the State's capability to assist Texans with animal issues during disasters.
The Team was recently recognized by the Emergency Management Association of Texas (EMAT) for excellence in Emergency Management. It's the only team of its kind in Texas and in the United States.
Though modest with a tendency to redirect attention from himself in favor of heaping accolades on the individual members of his mounted response team, Ellis says with confidence they are ready to respond to state emergencies when needed and said he only hopes their efforts are equal to the job at hand.
In cowboy terms, he means that when the call comes in, he and his team are ready to help, and sooner than later, and the cavalry is on the way.