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California horses, evacuated during the storms, wait for their owners to find new stalls


The storms that hit California earlier this month destroyed neighborhoods and business districts. The deluge sent thousands fleeing from their houses and not just people. From member station KCRW, Matt Guilhem reports that some displaced animals are still trying to find their way home.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: As a parade of atmospheric rivers pummeled Oak View, Calif., north of Los Angeles, the creek behind Rancho Grande Villa finally gave and became a river. The waters inundated the ranch, threatening the lives of its horses.

LYNN DORGAN: Yeah, I was there. We evacuated not only our six horses, but then we came back and helped the owner evacuate her seven horses.

GUILHEM: That's Lynn Dorgan, the clinical director of Reins of HOPE, a nonprofit that uses horses to help veterans, at-risk youth and others process trauma in outdoor therapy sessions. As the pounding rain kept coming, she and a handful of volunteers were able to corral the horses and load them up.

DORGAN: We were amazingly able to get our trailer out. Two other trailers got stuck on the property, but we were able to get our trailer out, and then we were able to get this little van out, which was a miracle.


GUILHEM: Among the equine evacuees who made it out was Hope.

SAMANTHA BALCEZAK: Hope is a miniature horse. She was a rescue, and she is kind of a little bit of our - or she is the ambassador to Reins of HOPE.

GUILHEM: Samantha Balcezak is with the group. She beams as she talks about the horse, who's smaller than a Great Dane. As she and little Hope take in the view of the mud-caked ranch that once hosted the therapy sessions, there's no anguish. Balcezak is...

BALCEZAK: Grateful every moment the team got our horses out of there with the volunteers. That's really still where I'm at. They're our four-legged therapists. Everything else can be replaced. Truly, everything else can be replaced. Our horses could not have been.

KATHY O'CONNOR: Hope you won't take offense. We haven't cleaned the floor since our last little operation.

GUILHEM: Just up the coast from Oak View, no-nonsense Kathy O'Connor leads the Santa Barbara Equine Evacuation Team. When disaster strikes the seaside county, her group turn the local fairgrounds, which have a host of stables, into a large animal shelter. The rows of stalls feature top and bottom Dutch doors and can be ready to welcome evacuees in about 45 minutes.

O'CONNOR: If we have a horse that's a little crazy, which sometimes they are, sometimes we have to close that top door because we have had horses jump over the doors. And sometimes we have to tranquilize an animal.

GUILHEM: While stressed-out animals may get a sedative, it's more sugar pill for their owners.

O'CONNOR: You know, this is a scary thing for people, particularly if they haven't been through it. So we try to calm them down, reassure them.

GUILHEM: County officials activated the equine evac team during the recent storms. A few years ago, during the Thomas Fire, they oversaw a menagerie of more than 1,300, including woolly Scottish steer, zebras and goats. As the frequency of powerful storms and devastating fires increases in California, so too does the need for everybody from a dog owner to a cattle titan to have an emergency plan for getting their animals out fast. While quick thinking and a bit of luck saved the therapy horses from the flood that tore up their ranch, Lynn Dorgan with Reins of HOPE says the herd being scattered is taking a toll.

DORGAN: I have a home to go home to. The horses are couch surfing. And we all are so connected to our horses. They're struggling. We're all struggling together.

GUILHEM: The current path home is rough and more than a little wet. But the group is confident happy trails are ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in Oak View, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Guilhem is a native of the Inland Empire. After growing up in the region, he went north to Berkeley for university and earned a degree in English. Matt's passion for radio developed late; he hosted a program while abroad in 2011 and knew he had found his calling. Matt started at KVCR as an intern in 2013; he now serves as both a reporter and host for the station. You can hear him regularly most weekday afternoons on All Things Considered, occasionally filling in on Morning Edition, and filing news reports for both programs.