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Disaster response States developing plans to prepare for natural disasters

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Natural disasters are unavoidable, but states are finding ways to help agricultural producers deal with the aftermath. Although most states have some kind of disaster plan in place, many times they aren’t fully developed until a natural disaster happens.

Tommy Bass, who is a livestock environment associate specialist with Montana State University, says as a delegate for the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), he is able to share ideas, knowledge, resources and disaster education with colleagues from other states. 

National network

EDEN is a national, territorial and international organization. 

“It enhances the power of response and adds depth to extension programming. It inspires program ideas because we get to see what other states go through when there is a natural disaster. It allows us to develop better intellectual and educational mutual aid,” he explains. 

EDEN has helped Montana officials develop the S-CAP (Strengthening Community Agrosecurity Preparedness) program. 

“We have benefited from other national experiences, and national delegates have come here and educated us by sharing their experiences,” Bass explains. 

The end goal is developing a plan for disaster response, whether it is a flood, fire or a train accident. 

“Through S-CAP, we have developed a plan and deployment. We also hold training and evacuation exercises,” he explains.

A livestock rescue and extrication plan has been developed, in case of a truck accident. 

“Our first instinct when that happens is to just cut the fence and let the animals that survived into the pasture, but that creates a biosecurity issue. This plan addresses that, as well as human and animal safety, welfare, proper euthanasia practices and containment,” Bass explains.

Hurricane aftermath

Texas is still addressing recovery efforts, after a major hurricane in 2017 caused flooding and catastrophic damages. 

Ron Gill, an Extension livestock specialist with Texas A&M University, says procedures are in place at state, regional and county agencies who work under the Texas Animal Health Commission, which is the lead agency for animal-related issues.

Each of the 154 counties in Texas have Extension personnel trained to assist county emergency management coordinators in animal-related issues. Four Extension livestock specialists also serve on the state’s animal response team, and 40 county Extension agents are on the state’s seven agricultural strike teams. 

These people have been through emergency management training and help keep communications open between agencies about animal health. 

“We also have Extension people devoted to helping with drought issues, like landscape and the home use of water, which can become contaminated after a flood. We had to do a lot of water well testing after Hurricane Harvey,” Gill says.

Every county in the state has a hurricane preparedness guide, which tells people where to go if they need to evacuate. 

Agricultural producers and companion animal owners can also call 2-1-1 to locate state shelters, where their animals may be housed after being rescued. 

“One area we need to address is identification for displaced livestock that haven’t been branded or ear-tagged,” he says.

EDEN influence

Texas has a EDEN program, which helps them with mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Gill says they are currently addressing the recovery aspect of the plan. 

“Since the flooding, there are still a lot of areas with debris that haven’t been cleaned up. We have a big role in recovery, especially after flooding, and other disasters like fire,” he says. 

During Hurricane Harvey, 2.1 million head of livestock were displaced. The state was overcome with questions of where to relocate that many animals, as well as the impossible logistics of moving 40 cows per truck. 

“There were no acres or facilities available to handle that many animals,” Gill explains. “In some cases, our only choice was to move them to the highest spots, but sometimes that wasn’t even enough. They were still standing in four to five feet of water.”

Many producers returned after the disaster to find fences down that could take months to replace, as well as buildings, facilities and equipment destroyed. 

“In some cases, the infrastructure was torn up so badly that those ranches were forced to sell out because they had no place to keep their animals,” he explains.

“We need to develop a better plan to help us assess their needs and mobilize resources to help,” Gill explains. “We also need to better coordinate and distribute donated products throughout the disaster area.” 

“It can be a challenge to get feed to animals that can’t be relocated or moved,” he says. 

Northern drought

Carl Dahlen, North Dakota State University Extension beef specialist, tells producers the 2017 drought had severe implications for ranchers and their animals. 

“There was a shortage of feed, a shortage of water and quality issues for both,” Dahlen explains. “There were also many program and policy issues, and all that put together made for an extremely stressful situation for everyone.”

“It is a unique time when the agricultural economy itself is down, commodity prices are down, and a lot of outstanding loans are out there,” he explains. “There are a lot of questions regarding operating loans moving forward, and add to that the stress of a drought.”

North Dakota has focused on getting a team together, made up of Extension personnel, as well as representatives from various local, state and national agencies. Representatives from North Dakota’s congressional delegation and the governor’s office also served on the team. 

“What we did was have weekly meetings to share information, current conditions, the future outlook, program and policy updates and needs and discovery. We posted this information on the drought website,” Dahlen says.

Lessons learned

“The biggest learning curve in all of this has been developing a real appreciation for the experience each person on the team has. Everyone brings something different, and once we have that understanding, we can really move forward. We want to broaden our network using a holistic approach,” Dahlen says.

As a result of the drought, Dahlen says Extension personnel have had the opportunity to become better educated by conducting research to provide producers with much needed answers. One area of research was nitrate poisoning that was killing cattle. Nitrates had accumulated in the plants from drought stress. 

“If we didn’t have the answers, we would start collecting and analyzing samples to get the answers. It gave us good data moving forward and an opportunity for Extension agent-producer interaction,” he says. “Moving forward, we realize there will be lasting implications. But we feel more prepared to answer known questions, and we will be listening for new and developing issues.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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