Thursday, December 3, 2020
Dec. 3, 2020

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Eta’s floodwaters drowned horse barns in South Florida. Now owners are scrambling to find dry land


DAVIE, Fla. — South Florida horse owners didn’t think Tropical Storm Eta posed much of a threat. Their horses had lived through countless hurricanes in barns made of concrete, or open fields where they could run away from any threat.

They weren’t prepared for floodwaters that drenched their horses’ stalls with water nearly up to their knees and turned their pastures into ponds. It left them scrambling to evacuate their 1,200-pound animals through two feet of water to temporary dry stalls in the middle of a pandemic — even as rain kept falling the rest of the week.

“It came out of nowhere,” said Alexandra Khenenou, who moved her three horses to a temporary barn in Cooper City on Wednesday. “The land owner at my barn contacted me saying ‘your horses are standing in water. What do you want to do?’ So I was scrambling all morning trying to find different farms, different locations where I can put them.”

It was any horse owner’s worst nightmare, she said.

“Horses expect a certain level of care, especially if that’s how they’ve been treated,” she said. “For me, my horses are my children. So for me to see my child just kind of looking at me for help and standing in water, I wanted to burst into tears.”

Those who found their horses in similar predicaments knew they had to act fast.

Flooded stalls and pastures are more than just a burden for horse owners — floodwaters can wreak havoc on horses’ delicate feet and legs. Diseases can fester in moist hooves, and stubborn fungus or rain rot can rankle the sensitive skin on their legs and cause excessive swelling.

On Thursday, a horse got stuck in the thick mud of a flooded pasture in Southwest Ranches. Rescue crews wrestled the muscular mare named Moonie out of the mud. She got scraped up from submerged tree branches in the tussle — but she was one of the lucky ones.

More often than not, horses and other big animals exhaust themselves trying to escape and end up drowning, said Davie Fire Rescue battalion chief Chris Abramczyk. It was the fourth animal rescue his crew responded to this week, he said.

“I’ve worked for Davie Fire Rescue 18 years, and I’ve never seen the magnitude of this,” he said.

In Davie, horse owners can register their horses with the town during hurricane season in case their barn collapses or their horse escapes. The horses are usually released in an enclosed area such as Robbins Lodge, and owners often braid name tags into their horse’s mane or spray paint their phone numbers on their side.

The town waived the registration fees for the program after Eta, and kept registered horses in dry stalls at the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds on Davie Road.

Jamie Diersing, 30, signed her 15-year-old horse Kirby up for the program. The rodeo grounds was one of the only areas that didn’t flood, she said.

“I’ve never seen the stalls get wet like that before,” she said. “The water wasn’t draining fast enough, and at some points it was up to past my calf.”

She grew up in Davie, and has had horses since she was 11, she said. The area is known for retaining water, but she said she had never seen the flooding this bad before.

Just around the corner from the rodeo grounds, horses waded through a paddock that was still underwater Thursday at Ranchero Gonzalez.

Juan Gonzalez, the barn manager, said he lost about 20 boarders just this week. The whole property was flooded with at least 10 inches of water, he said.

“The owners said one or two days is fine, but when it goes to a week, the horses can have problems with their feet,” he said. “It’s been a headache. I’ve been around here 22 years and I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Gonzalez had just started managing the barn under his family name on Nov. 4, he said. Previously it was called M&M Stables, a popular property right in the heart of downtown Davie.

“We definitely got to do something with the water in this area,” he said. “Right now, if it keeps going like this, the new Fort Lauderdale beach is gonna be right here.”