Those familiar with disaster recovery efforts have a saying learned the hard way — they call it “the disaster after the disaster.” Indeed, coordinating relief efforts and picking up what pieces are left can be as overwhelming as anything Mother Nature can dish out.

Bob Hillman knows that all too well. As executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), Texas state vet, and the point man in coordinating animal health-related response and recovery efforts in the Lone Star state, the lessons from dealing with the aftereffects of wildfires, tornadoes and last year's Hurricane Ike were indeed hard-learned for the livestock industry.

Here's some of what those lessons have taught:

Have a plan

Recovering from a natural disaster begins long before the disaster ever occurs, Hillman says. “Certainly, whether it's a hurricane or some other type of disaster, producers need to think about how they can safeguard their operation, their animals and their facilities,” he says.

That begins with a plan. “This may be the single most important thing producers can do,” he says, “both for doing certain activities ahead of an event as well as in recovery operations.”

Begin with a plan to either evacuate animals or move them to a safer location. “If you can move cattle from low ground to high ground, have a plan for that and figure out what kind of resources you need. Then you can set it in place on short notice instead of having to sit down at the last minute and figure out what resources you need to move cattle from one pasture to another or across two highways where maybe the storm won't get to them.”

That plan can be as elaborate as you want it to be, or it can be as simple as predicting where cattle might drift ahead of a storm and letting down fences so they don't pile up in a corner. “Whether or not that's a legitimate thing to do, I can't say. But I guess if I was in that position, that's probably what I would have done.”

Hillman strongly encourages producers to become involved in the local animal issues committee of their county emergency management group. “Become part of the animal issues team and develop a plan for dealing with animal emergencies in your county.”

Evacuation may not be possible

Hillman says even though TAHC has worked with communities to identify possible facilities for large animal sheltering during evacuations, what they tend to see is that animals that can be easily transported, like horses, are the ones that are evacuated ahead of a storm. As Hurricane Ike zigged and zagged its way across the Gulf of Mexico, knowing exactly where it would make landfall was nearly impossible to predict.

And when you consider that on a 10,000-acre ranch, it's possible that cattle could be 15 miles or more from the home place and still be on your land, evacuation gets complicated. “In fact, for most producers it's probably impossible because you don't have enough lead time to get (the cattle) out,” Hillman says.

Animal ID important

That makes it important to identify your cattle so you can recover the live ones and document those that didn't survive for insurance and tax purposes.

“It was a bit surprising to me that a number of cattle were not identified in any way to discern who the owner was of that animal,” Hillman says, reflecting on the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. “No brands, no ear tags, no tattoos, nothing that said this animal belongs to rancher John Smith and that one belongs to Joe Jones.”

Hillman encourages producers to identify their animals, then keep records. “If you use ear tags, keep records of those identification tags so you can say these are mine. Brand 'em. Brand inspectors do a good job sorting those out if they're identified with a brand. Those kinds of things go a long way to at least provide a degree of peace of mind to a producer who might get caught up in a storm.”

Then, have a backup of your records. Hillman has an external hard drive on his home computer where he backs up all his files. “Something as simple as that, you can put in your shirt pocket. So if you lose your computer or lose your hard records in the file cabinet at the house if the storm blew the house out, you've still got a record of your transactions of your animals.”

Further, he suggests ranchers keep a backup copy of pertinent information somewhere else. “Have one with a family member who lives somewhere else or with your attorney in town.”

And register your premises. That was one thing that Hillman says would have helped speed recovery efforts following Hurricane Ike. “We didn't have enough premises registered down there to do a lot of good for us,” he says. “Had more premises been registered, at least we would have had a good idea of who all had cattle. That would have helped a great deal.”

Those who had registered their premises were in a better position to have post-hurricane recovery teams find them and begin the recovery efforts sooner. “It saves a lot of driving up and down the road because you know where things are supposed to be and can go right to them,” Hillman says. “Or fly to them with a helicopter or even take a boat to them if need be. Certainly knowing the locations would be very beneficial to us when we go into an area to assess damage and get an idea of what's needed to help in recovery.”

And it can help prior to a disaster as well. “If we have enough lead time, it would help in notifying producers that something's coming and they need to take precautions. If we have e-mail addresses for those who register their premises, we can get an e-mail warning out in very short order.”

For more information on how to prepare for a disaster and deal with the aftermath, go to http://texashelp.tamu.edu/005-agriculture/farmstead-preparedness-recovery.php.