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Hay drop to save cattle underway in Southeast Texas

The drama still continues two weeks after the storm, cattle still lost or stranded, ranchers unable to reach remote areas where flood waters remain standing in fields and roads are still closed and impassable.

Hurricane Harvey rescuers have moved from saving people from drowning in their homes to saving cattle from starving to death in flooded fields.

At the time of landfall on Aug. 25, Hurricane Harvey was the strongest tropical system to reach the U.S. coast line in over a dozen years. The powerful storm packed sustained winds of 135 mph with gusts well over 155 mph, a category 4  major storm that devastated communities on the mid-Texas coast.

The devastation in its wake is enormous, especially in communities like Rockport, a popular fishing and retirement community on the Texas coast, and Port Aransas, located on a barrier island just offshore from Corpus Christi. At one point more than 30,000 were harbored in public shelters, many still sheltered there, their homes destroyed and their family belongings lost forever.

In rural areas stretching from Corpus Christi and over 300 miles up the coast to the Louisiana border, farms and ranches and small communities dot the rural countryside. This is cotton and grain country, and also home to over a million beef cattle and other livestock. The losses have been staggering, up to $200 million to agricultural interests alone.

And the drama still continues over two weeks after the storm, cattle still lost or stranded, ranchers unable to reach remote areas where flood waters remain standing in fields and roads are still closed and impassable.

Air drops only way

Federal, state and civilian help has been pouring into the area since the storm ravaged the state, including National Guard units from 11 states. State parks and wildlife biologists and rescue workers, animal health rangers and civilian volunteers from across Texas and beyond responding to the livestock drama unfolding across the hardest hit areas.

Many cows and steers have been located, but with no way to reach the animals, they remain stressed, in poor health, many are starving for lack of food. Some are stuck in mud, or sheltered on small patches of dry land surrounded by flood water.

Fortunately, aviation units from the Texas National Guard, from Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi and other states are responding, loading bales of hay and  launching what promises to be the largest air drop of hay in history, an attempt to provide rescue food for livestock until waters finally recede and herds can be collected, treated, and moved to safety.

Many ranchers have already reported huge losses, some losing well over 50-percent of their herd to flood waters, many more still missing.

Danny Phend of Phend's  feed and livestock store in Winnie, located mid way between Houston and Beaumont, reported to NPR Radio that the numbers of lost cattle will be devastating when all is said and done.

Still searching for animals

“Most of our customers are not even able to find the majority of their stock, only about 20 percent of their herds for some,” Phend reported. “Around here cattle and rice are a big deal.”

The losses to both have been high.

Officials estimate every lost cow represents a $1,000-$2,000 loss for ranchers, and the numbers of lost or dead animals keep rising. As military helicopters fly above flooded fields, they are reporting “dead animals everywhere.” No one seems ready to guess how many animals may have perished, but most agree, the total will be devastating.

Texas Army National Guard pilot Randolph Robinson flies a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter, a large, dual rotary-blade chopper designed to carry heavy loads of military equipment and personnel. In recent days it has been filled with bales of hay donated by farmers and ranchers across areas of Texas and other states outside the zone of storm destruction. Flying missions from dusk till dawn, Robinson and other National Guard pilots have been air dropping those bales when they spot cattle stranded and hungry.

"Roads are still underwater, areas where folks' homes are located are still underwater," said Robinson. “But our focus right now is on saving the cattle. We had a group of ranchers asking for help [because] cows had been stranded since the storm came ashore, and they are not in good shape. No one can reach them in these remote areas, and they are hungry.”

Flying non-stop to help

Choppers have been flying non-stop as state animal biologists and state animal health veterinarians with the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) attempt to identify where small groups of animals are stuck in mud or stranded in water from aerial photographs, from satellite photos and by using UAV (drone) fly-overs.

Pilots and flight crews say the choppers are flying the same way they do in combat missions. Once they drop their loads of hay, they return to a landing area and never power down as ground crews load more bales of hay inside the aircraft for continuous runs back and forth across affected areas to stranded cattle.

In recent days, the skies over Southeast Texas have become crowded with helicopters. More Chinooks are arriving from National Guard units from as far away as Utah and Ohio, offering machines and extra hands to handle the cattle emergency.

“We found a tremendous number of cattle stranded in areas that were inaccessible and wouldn’t be accessible for quite some time in Jefferson and nearby counties,” said Lt. Tony Viator with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. “We began dropping hay, but we quickly realized we wouldn’t be able to support that mission over such a broad region. So we contacted the Guard and they sent Zach. We couldn’t have done this without his help.”

Chief Warrant Officer Zach Koehn from the 149th Aviation Regiment of the Texas National Guard explained that the hay-drop operation was a state-mandated effort to restore a $25 million livestock industry investment and protect Texan livelihood.

More than ranches at stake

“It’s not just the ranchers, it’s the truckers that carry the cattle and feed, its the veterinarians that take care of the cattle’s medical needs. Nationally this is where a lot of meat comes from and it has the potential to raise the price of beef nationwide,” Koehn said.

Many local ranchers came to pitch in moving bales of hay onto the trailers and into the helicopters.

“These guys aren’t getting paid to be here,” said Koehn. “They’re here because they know it needs doing for their community, and we’re thankful for all of their help.”

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