Giles County Fire and Rescue volunteers come to the rescue of dairy farmer victims of Katrina

November 1, 2007
Dairy Farmers of America

At the same time eleven members of Giles County Fire and Rescue, Inc. were returning home last week from helping dairy farm families in Louisiana and Mississippi recover from Hurricane Katrina, two more area volunteers were headed for the disaster area.

Barry Whitt, chief of the Giles County Fire and Rescue squad, says the first Fire and Rescue team included North District Chief Dennis Russell, Capt. Marcus Harney, Capt. Brian Flowers, Lt. Kendell Wessels, Lt. Chip Krause, Lt. Cory Cardin, Sgt. Matt Warren, Sgt. Chad Gibbons, Dale Rayburn, Nancy Krause and Kelly Lee. The crew left home on Sunday, Sept. 11, and returned home on Thursday, Sept. 15. As they were coming home, Donal Malone, DVM, a veterinarian with Pulaski Veterinary Clinic, and Fire and Rescue volunteer Christie King, were headed toward the disaster area.

While the volunteer members of Giles County Fire and Rescue frequently come to the aid of neighboring counties during floods, fires and wrecks, this was the first time they had volunteered their services to another state. Janet Vanzant, Giles County Administrator, says the initial plan was to send Fire and Rescue volunteers trained in water rescue to help the flood victims of New Orleans.

“Barry Whitt, Chief of Giles County Fire and Rescue, called me right after the hurricane hit, and said he and his team wanted to volunteer their services to help the victims,” says Vanzant. “I thought it was a great idea, so I said if he could raise the funds to cover their expenses, I’d approve it.”

Chief Whitt contacted FEMA with an offer to send the rescue team to aid New Orleans victims, then broadcast an appeal over local radio station WKSR, asking for donations to cover their expenses. The citizens of Giles County quickly demonstrated their generosity by contributing $6,200 to the effort.

After several days passed without an answer from FEMA, Whitt, Vanzant and her brother, local dairyman Joe T. Parker, came up with an alternate plan. Parker, a member of the cooperative Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (DFA), had learned that some 312 dairy farm families within the path of the hurricane had suffered property damage and lost electrical power, and discovered that DFA was organizing relief efforts for dairy farmers in the disaster area.

“The Fire and Rescue squad got frustrated when no one would take their offers of assistance,” says Parker. “My sister, Janet, who is the Giles County Executive, is a person who likes to get a job done. When I told her about what DFA was doing to help dairy farmers, she approved the squad’s trip to help clear debris. So the team swapped their water rescue gear for chain saws and headed out.”

On Sunday, September 11, eleven Giles County Fire and Rescue volunteers loaded their vehicles with food, water, chain saws, fuel, tents and camping equipment, and headed for Franklinton, La., located just 50 miles north of New Orleans. They established their camp at DFA’s dairy processing plant at Franklinton, then split into two groups, one crew going to the aid of dairy producers in Louisiana’s Washington Parish, while the second crew helped dairy farmers near Tylertown, Mississippi.

“We were willing to do anything we could to help the dairy farmers who got hurt by the hurricane,” says Marcus Harney, a railroader and a captain with the fire and rescue squad. “We found that what they needed most was help in clearing their fields, pastures and fence lines of fallen trees and tree limbs. High winds caused a lot of devastation throughout the area, and we found a lot of fences down and cows running wild. So we came down with a load of chainsaws and spare parts, and started helping the dairy farmers clear out fallen trees.”

Among the grateful farmers who received help was Ron Pope, a DFA member and dairy producer from Franklinton who milks 200 cows.

“We got hit by 125 to 150 mile per hour winds when the eye of the storm passed just east of us,” he says. “We had a lot of big pine trees in our area, and when the winds knocked down the trees, they took out nearly every fence we had, along with the power lines and many of our outbuildings. We were still able to milk using generators, but our cows were getting out everywhere.

“We were about exhausted from all the hours we’d been putting in, and from the heat and humidity, trying to take care of the herd and starting to clean up the mess. The volunteer crew from Giles County spent two days at our farm using chainsaws to cut away the fallen trees, which freed us up to take care of other problems.”

“Other” problems included sick and dying cows. Pope says he lost four cows as a result of the storm, two more cows aborted the calves they were carrying, and several of his cows subsequently came down with e-coli mastitis. Because his veterinarian has been overwhelmed with calls, Pope and his employees have been trying to treat the cows themselves.

“It’s difficult to find the right words to properly thank people for offering this kind of generosity to dairy farmers,” says Bob Shipley, DFA Southeast Area Manager for Field and Member Relations. “Not only did they help cut fallen trees from the fence lines, but they also helped clear debris off the fields so our farmers could harvest hay for their cattle.”

“We truly appreciate the help these folks provided,” adds dairyman Ron Pope. “The only way we could repay them was by feeding them, but we owe them a lot more than a meal.”

Giles County Fire and Rescue, Inc. includes nearly 100 unpaid volunteers who willingly donate their time to help the victims of natural disasters and accidents. Brian Flowers, a dairy producer member of DFA who left his dairy farm in the hands of an employee to help nearly 20 fellow dairy producers in Louisiana and Mississippi, explains why he’s been a member of the squad for the last 11 years.

“I guess I dairy for a living, and volunteer on the rescue squad for recreation,” he says. “I hardly ever take time off for vacation … this is it. I’d rather help out with something like this. We’re used to tornadoes, but I didn’t think the damage would be as bad as it was. Since I’m a farmer, too, I understood what these guys are going through. I’m glad we could help.”

That’s not the end of the story. Late last Wednesday, Donal Malone, DVM, a veterinarian with Pulaski Veterinary Clinic, and his assistant, Christie King, who is also a Giles County Fire and Rescue volunteer, were headed for Franklinton, La. with vaccines to treat the area’s outbreak of mastitis. Which means swamped veterinarians and dairy farmers like Ron Pope can expect a little more help from the big-hearted citizens of Giles County.