By Gabrielle Sasse, PleasureHorse.com
Powerful storms ripped through the Midwest and Southern United States this past weekend and yesterday, continuing into today, leaving several states ravaged by storms. A tornado in Arkansas left an 80-mile path of destruction on Sunday and killed at least 16, while another tornado in Oklahoma crossed over into Kansas, injuring another 25 people. The storms continued to produce tornadoes on Monday and possibly in to today. The states where damage occurred also include Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. The death toll for the tornado outbreak currently is at least 28 reported deaths, as reported by weather.com. Our hearts go out to the loss that these families have suffered.
It is important to remember your animals when these storms occur, especially as the country heads into “tornado season”. We talked with Mary Ellen Hickman, an Oklahoma resident and owner of Whispering Winds Ranch, who was doing something to help keep her horses safe.
“I’m originally from Ohio and moved to Oklahoma, which is obviously known for its tornadoes,” Mary Ellen begins. “In Ohio, we wouldn’t get any warnings about storms coming. Here, they have great ways to predict where the storms are coming, so we get accurate warnings.”
Since moving to Oklahoma in 2006, Mary Ellen said that they have only had to get in their tornado shelter at home twice. “What really inspired me to create a safe room for my horses was the tornado that went through Moore,” she elaborates. On May 20, 2013 an EF5 rated tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma and the surrounding areas, killing 24 and injuring 377. “The tornado crossed over 35 into Moore on exit 116, and I live on exit 114. As the crow flies, the tornado was a mile from our farm and I watched it go by. The scariest thing I have ever witnessed. We only had minimal damage to our farm, but we would have to drive through Moore on our way to Oklahoma City and that was the first time I really understood what Post Traumatic Stress was about. You would just cry.”
Mary Ellen considers herself to be incredibly fortunate that they did not experience the amount of loss that many others did, both to property and animals. “I told myself I can’t live here and not provide a place of safety for my horses,” she says.
“I live on flat ground, and trying to build underground just wasn’t cost effective. I started doing some research, and designed it to look like a horse trailer. You can’t build a safe room any wider than 12 feet, but you can go longer. Mine is about 35 feet, and is built strong, like a bridge,” she explains.
The completed concrete structure is thicker than regulation safe rooms, and took about a month to finish. The room can house 10 horses comfortably, with room to fit more “if they are friendly”, with horses able to stand in the aisle ways. “We have race horses and Barrel horses, and often they are out at the track,” Mary Ellen elaborates. “We usually have about six, but I often have friends that stop by on their way to Oklahoma City, so I wanted room for more. You could make the safe room as big or small as you want. You don’t even need to make it as elaborate with stalls on the inside as I did. We just don’t have a fixed group of horses, and I didn’t want to worry about one fighting with another if a storm ever happens.”
Mary Ellen says she ran a tornado drill to practice, and then spoke to her vet about how to smooth the process out. “After talking to my vet, I have a bottle of Ace on hand. If they have to all be in there at once, I’ll be able to give them a little Ace in the muscle before they all have to go in. That’s what is nice about living here, is that they are able to predict down to the minute where the storm will be crossing next.”
“Since I’ve lived here, we’ve always had a warning but no tornado. I would consider a warning to be when the sky looks bad and they tell us there is a possibility. That gives me plenty of time to give them some Ace and load everyone into the safe room. Hay bags are already hung up, and I can set water buckets in the room. I’ve got emergency lights up so we can see.”
Mary Ellen says she didn’t run water to the room because the cost was too high, and it is only a temporary sanctuary. “In a worst case scenario, I would keep them there overnight but I have water right outside. It’s not something to stay in for days, but it’s a safe place to be. There are no guarantees, but it gives me a great peace of mind.”
“People all over the United States have contacted me and said that they have thought about making their own,” she says, sounding surprised at the popularity. “It’s a good investment, and even gives good resale value to your property. It could even be a great safe! Put shelves in it, or whatever. The way the weather is now, especially here, it’s a good investment. I don’t have a swimming pool but I do have a safe room!” she laughs. “A pool is more expensive. I just hope that I can help inspire others and to save a few lives.”
Thank you to Mary Ellen for talking to us, and we hope that you never have to use your safe room. Keep those in mind who have lost their homes, animals and more, and look for ways you can help those in need as final reports come in.