Disaster Lessons

When the Flood is Worse Than You Expect

John Coleman Locke actually jumped out of a helicopter to free drowning cattle tangled in a fence. He says it was a reaction to seeing his animals in such distress. (Photo courtesy John Coleman Locke)

Early Tuesday morning, Aug. 22, 2017, John Coleman Locke was feeling pretty darn good. While the rancher hurt for those who had taken a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey, his family's purebred Brahman operation was spared. Or, so he thought.

"The forecasters said the system was going to be on top of our ranch for three or four days, and dump massive amounts of rain on us," the Hungerford, Texas, rancher recalls.

He wasn't that worried, though. "Colorado River flooding is nothing new. In my 40 years, it has flooded parts of our ranch seven times."

This time, the river was supposed to crest 1.5 to 2 feet higher than the historic 2016 floods. But, Locke still felt confident it wasn't something they couldn't handle.

He did take some precautions. Earlier that week, he moved all their equipment off the ranch, the first time he'd ever taken that step before a storm. He also moved cattle to the north end of their property, a mile away from the river.

When he got to the ranch that Tuesday morning, Locke saw water levels higher than he'd ever seen them -- and this was 14 to 15 hours ahead of the expected crest. What followed was a life-and-death crisis for 230 cows and, at times, for Locke and his helpers.

He learned a lot from the experience. To begin, he says you have to always put people first -- that means your neighbors and anyone else you can help in -- time of natural disaster. So, as anxious as Locke was to tend to his cattle, he started with his neighbors.

"They were hard-headed and didn't want to leave their property," he says. He and his crew spent valuable hours persuading and helping people leave their homes.

Locke managed to forget the "people-first" rule, at least in regard to his own safety, when he bailed out of a hovering helicopter the next day into floodwater to free 20 of his cows. They were tangled in a fence and drowning. He ignored the rule again on Thursday, when he swam across a ditch to free a heifer who, like the cows, was tangled in a fence and drowning.

"At that point, it was a toss-up of what was my biggest fear, water moccasins or my wife," he says. He avoided the snakes but not his wife. A helicopter passenger filmed the rescue and posted it on Facebook.

STAY AHEAD OF THE CRISIS

Looking back, Locke notes the value of staying out ahead of a crisis was clear. He wishes they had done more.

"If we had moved our cattle farther the day before, it would have been a whole lot more inconvenient at the time, but we probably would have avoided 50% of the problems we had that Tuesday," he says.

Noting how fast conditions changed, Locke says the Tuesday of the flood they started out on damp ground, able to use four-wheelers, buggies and horses. Two hours later, the same ground was under 2 feet of water and threatening to drown out the four-wheelers and buggies. He also says he shouldn't have tried to separate out his cattle from the neighbors, thinking they would move them separately. "We should have just thrown everything together," Locke says in retrospect.

IF YOU'RE LEADING, DELEGATE

With the water rising fast, Locke put his sister in charge of finding boats, people and horses to help move cattle. He says the value of giving people a role is important. Simply put, if good people know you need help, help will find its way to you. "That was a common theme for the next few days, weeks and months," Locke says.

An hour after he asked his sister to round up help, there were two boats with mud motors, a boat with an outboard motor, an airboat, several more horses and eight to 10 more men in the water.

That day, Locke and his crew managed to move several hundred head of cattle to higher ground. Still, by night, the water was continuing to rise, and Locke says he honestly expected the worst. "Through tears, I typed out a message on Facebook. I told everybody we had done the best we could, but I probably had a bad plan going in. I also told the people who helped how much we appreciated it."

As a result of that post, by morning, he was in a piloted Cessna 172 and able to find groups of his cattle.

"I'm a pilot, but that morning I wasn't fit to fly a paper airplane," he says.

With the additional help, the next few days he was able to get 700 head of cattle onto the only patch of semidry ground (around 30 acres) in a 2,000-acre area.

"People reached out to us and pushed themselves, their equipment and their horses to the absolute limit. These people not only donated thousands and thousands of dollars of services, they risked their lives," he says.

Help kept coming—top-caliber help. When the water started to go down, and he and his crew were able to start getting fences back up, Texas A&M Extension livestock specialist Ron Gill showed up with horses and two top hands.

"We spent about 10 hours sorting cattle. It was one of the best days working cattle I've ever had."

FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS

Locke believes there's a good chance life experiences have prepared most people to deal with a crisis. They just have to allow themselves to rely on their instincts.

Of course, it doesn't always work out how you'd expect. There was that 200-hp, four-wheel-drive John Deere and an eight-wheel, four-wheel-drive John Deere both stuck axle-deep in mud after he tried to use them to haul hay to his cattle.

Aside from that, Locke says everything from Boy Scouts to his involvement in the Texas Agricultural Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program and his interest and practice in low-stress stockmanship helped him prepare. Not to mention one other vital skill: "I can swim," he explains.

PRIORITIZE AND ITEMIZE

In agriculture, the physical work required in an emergency is almost automatic. You just do it. But, Locke says when it comes to the mental chores, he finds the most important part is to make a list of priorities.

For example, he knew he had to work cows, which meant corrals had to be rebuilt, so he put a couple of volunteers in charge of that. Know what you need first and work from there.

When it was all over, the final death toll for Locke's operation was three cows, two baby calves and a weaning-age heifer.

"I almost feel ashamed we came out of this deal so good," he says. He gives the credit to the helpers, as well as widespread prayers.

"It was probably three months before we felt any sense of normalcy," Locke adds. "It would have been a year if we hadn't had so much help."

Even when it's over, a disaster isn't really over for people who lived through it. Locke says five months after the hurricane, he thought he was still physically and mentally exhausted from trying to pick up the pieces and put the ranch back together.

"You have to be aware of it and have a strategy for dealing with it," Locke says. He adds that through the hardships, however, he became aware of the brevity of life. That changed his outlook.

"I felt an enormous regret at having put things off," he says. "I've tried to remember that feeling and use it to motivate me to get things done."

(ES/AG)