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As Human Rescues Wind Down, Helicopters Drop Hay To Stranded Cattle


Ranchers in South Texas are among the people trying to get their lives back to normal after Hurricane Harvey. The storm scattered thousands of cattle, and now much of the grazing land along the coast has turned to swamp. As Brian Mann reports, recovering the animals is turning out to be a nightmare, and ranchers say many of the animals won't survive.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: As I drive the back roads of South Texas, the local radio station calls for donations of feed and equipment to help local ranchers cope with the devastation of Harvey.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Buckets, troughs and other equipment for livestock feeding and watering, hay...

MANN: The rain that hit here didn't just wipe out homes, it spread chaos through hundreds of ranches along the coast, knocking over barns, washing away equipment. The high water pushed cattle deep into the scrub. Out in a wet, muddy field, I meet rancher Belinda Levingston.

BELINDA LEVINGSTON: We still don't know where all of our cattle are because we can't get to them yet.

MANN: How many head of cattle are still unaccounted for?

LEVINGSTON: More than I even want to imagine. We had 700, and we're seeing about 300.

MANN: This one ranch - hundreds of cattle gone, each animal worth between $1,000 and $2,000. Levingston says as many as 150 cattle in her herd are likely already dead.

DANNY PHEND: Ask your mama.

MANN: I stop in at Danny Phend's feed and livestock store in the tiny town of Winnie, Texas. He just shakes his head.

PHEND: Most of the customers not even been able find probably 20 percent of their herd.

MANN: How big a deal is cattle in this part of Texas?

PHEND: You got cattle, rice and crawfish.

MANN: When Hurricane Ike hit here in 2008, officials say as many as 8,000 animals died - a blow worth millions of dollars to ranchers. People I talk to here say the hit to livestock this time will be worse because the flooding's worse, and it's lasting longer. So in the neighboring town of Hamshire, Texas, the sheriff's department and crews from the Michigan Army National Guard are flying relief missions, lifting off from the high school football field.

With the human rescue operation winding down, they're using big military helicopters to drop loads of hay to stranded cattle. The crew lets me climb aboard, and we sweep away across waterlogged fields and swollen rivers. The late afternoon sun flashes against water everywhere. Before long, we see them - herds of cattle pinned on tiny patches of high ground. Two of the herds are actually swimming across bayous. The crew hovers and tosses bales of hay out into the sky.

RYAN WARHOLA: Thirty, 40 cattle and nothing but mud they're standing on.

MANN: Ryan Warhola flies for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. He says this operation is making a difference, but it's grim work.

WARHOLA: There's dead animals everywhere. It's unworldly down there. It's really wild to see.

MANN: As the flooding slowly recedes, ranchers are rounding up as many cattle as they can, as fast as they can. But many areas are still completely impassable. Brian Mann, NPR News, South Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.