By: Mollie Lastovica
When disaster strikes, we can always count on first responders like firemen, police officers and other public service workers to be on the scene, ready to assist in a heartbeat. But what about those whose task revolves around livestock protection and rescue?
Enter the Agriculture and Natural Resources Strike Teams, a division of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. The strike team members completed a routine briefings and refresher course, conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, on August 28.
Stationed in seven of the 12 Extension districts across Texas and comprised of approximately eight volunteer County Extension Agents per team, the AgNR Strike Teams serve to respond to disastrous incidents where livestock are involved, be it a natural disaster or animal disease outbreak.
“In most communities across the state, livestock and crop production is the fabric of the economy,” Andy Vestal, Ph.D., Director for Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension service says. “To bring that fabric of the economy back to normalcy after an incident is what our emergency management programs and strike teams are for.”
Established after agents volunteered on the cuff during Hurricane Ike, District Directors in Texas A&M AgriLife Extension were tasked with creating a group of seasoned county extension agents with five to 10 years of experience to make up the district strike teams.
“Following Hurricane Ike, we decided to institutionalize the strike teams,” Vestal says. “They want agents with experience in stressful situations so they can be of the best service to livestock producers in impacted areas, whether they are hit by tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes or animal disease outbreaks,”
Team members go through briefings conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and additionally complete training required of first responders by the Department of Homeland Security.
“Each district team has its own mobilization plan that includes what the need to take to the site and how they plan on getting there,” Vestal says. “They are required to be self-sufficient for three to four days upon mobilization and are prepared to work in a primitive environment.”
Members of the AgNR Strike Teams work in cooperation with the Texas Animal Health Commission, the Texas Department of Agriculture and agricultural organizations across the state and nation to establish Livestock Supply Points in the disaster areas. While TAHC responders usually arrive first, when the AgNR Strike Team members arrive, their first goal is to assess the situation and then react to that assessment.
“During Hurricane Ike, our role was to do an assessment of damages and assessment of resource needs of livestock producers and the livestock itself,” Vestal says. “We brought clean water for the livestock, 4-wheelers, horses and other necessary materials to round up the livestock from swampy areas.”
During the Texas wildfires of 2011, the strike teams assisted, once again, in the rescue, transport and maintenance of affected livestock.
“We operated 12 Livestock Supply Points in approximately 23 counties supplying about 2,400 tons of hay and resources all the way across Texas,” Vestal says. “The praise goes out to the livestock and agricultural organizations across the U.S. who came together to donate these resources.”
A member of the District 12 Strike Team, retired County Extension Agent Joe Taylor believes that the strike teams are essential to working with livestock producers in the midst of a disaster.
“Agents who volunteered to be on the strike teams have a background in animal husbandry and work with these people on a daily basis. They know producers and producers know them,” Taylor says. “The producers will be more amenable to these people. As county extension agents in a disaster situation, not only do we have a better understanding of what animals need, but we also know what producers want. We can talk to producers in a means they understand.”
The working relationship between extension agents and livestock producers across the state makes it easier for strike team members to assist producers in their time of need.
“Most of what Texas A&M AgriLife Extension does in terms of emergency management is preparedness education and mitigation education along with education that supports recovery. We are not first responders unless it is regarding livestock,” Vestal says. “No one wants to deal with these types of issues, but it is important to know that, if the need arises, we are prepared to help.”
To obtain resources on disaster preparedness, visit texashelp.tamu.edu.
Click here to watch the strike teams in action during “Operation No Fences” of Hurricane Ike.