Soon after an F4 killer tornado tore through north-central Tennessee in February 2008, a group of animal rescue volunteers from the Chattanooga, Tenn., area arrived and went to work on farms near the little town of Lafayette. They gasped when they saw the devastation the storm left.
"The houses and barns were just toothpicks. There were just concrete slabs where some of the barns sat,” says Norman Layne, one of the volunteers.
Cattle, goats, horses and pets wandered the area, dazed. The human survivors were shell-shocked, as well, with several deaths in the 50-plus-mile wake of the tornado.
Layne and other members of the Hamilton County Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) wasted no time. They rounded up livestock and built temporary corrals to hold the animals as they sorted them and determined ownership. In addition, they cared for dogs and other pets.
"If people in the community have been killed and houses destroyed, neighbors are not thinking about their animals. That's what DART does. We know and care about animals, and we handle them cautiously, with restraint equipment if necessary,” says Melissa Benson, another volunteer.
DART volunteers go through rigorous preparation. Part of a statewide organization coordinated and deployed by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, it is credentialed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which requires it to meet training standards. Volunteers attend a series of seminars and complete three levels of incident command training to understand how the emergency response system works. They also read and sign a code of conduct stating exactly what they can do when responding to emergencies.
"We're not going to be just good-hearted, well-intentioned folks. We have to be very professional about it,” says Ray Burden, Hamilton County Extension director, who coordinates the local program.
"This is a team effort. We stress that nobody will self-deploy and that we don't go to a disaster area unless we are asked. When we do go, we wear badges that identify us as part of the emergency response team,” Burden says.
About 60 credentialed people, including six veterinarians, volunteer for the county DART team. Quite a few others are in training stages, as well.
"We do this because we love animals. We raise meat goats, and I know what our situation would be if there was a disaster at our place. We'd have goats in every yard for miles around, eating flowers. We would have to depend on knowledgeable neighbors to help. With DART, we are those knowledgeable people who can step in and help with the animals while other emergency responders take care of the people,” says Joy Layne, Norman's wife.
Prepared to help.
Arriving post-tornado in Lafayette, the DART volunteers found needy animals everywhere.
"People lost everything. Houses were blown away. Dogs were dead. In one place, a barn collapsed on a goat herd. Some cattle were spooked real bad. We put feed troughs out and helped them get used to feeding. The last herd we found was still spooked four days after the tornado. I remember a 1,800-lb. to 2,000-lb. bull who seemed really glad to see somebody come along to help. He just walked real slow right into the corral with the cows,” Norman says.
Edward Cherry, who farms near Lafayette, says the DART volunteers provided vital help with his cattle at a stressful time. "They did a great job I couldn't do at that particular time, just an outstanding job. They knew what they were doing,” he says.
"These cattle wanted to stay in a huddle. They wanted security. They were ready for direction, ready for somebody to take charge and do something, which is what those people did. I didn't even know there were any such people like that,” Cherry says.
The DART team trains for several types of livestock-related disasters ranging from tornadoes to overturned cattle trucks to contagious diseases.
"We're here to help. This came to the forefront with Hurricane Katrina. When disaster happens and you are displaced, we will set up shelter and provide veterinary assistance and treat those animals until you can come back,” volunteer Benson says.
You can e-mail Charles Johnson at email@example.com