For most of us in the Bayou City, our Hurricane Harvey stories revolve around catastrophic flooding, toxin-laced waters and overflowing reservoirs. But further down south, just inland of where the Category 4 hurricane first plowed into Rockport at 130 miles per hour (also known as ground zero), their nightmare also included tornadoes.
So many tornadoes, in fact, that news reports out of Refugio were reporting that nearly every building in the town of about 3,000 persons was damaged. Just six miles away, in the smaller town of Woodsboro, one of RodeoHouston's regular exhibitors was scrambling to save the lives of her show animals.
"At first everybody said it was going to be Cat 2, Cat 3 in Corpus. But then the day, Thursday, we were in a volleyball tournament and I got an alert on my phone that the judge ordered evacuation of all citizens in Refugio County," says Abbey Hicks, a senior at Woodsboro High School. "I immediately loaded up the truck. I knew right then that we weren’t going to leave [the show animals]. I was packing up our show boxes, the feed."
Hicks says they didn't get any water in Woodsboro, but the destructive winds were enough to tear their town apart. "We had 122 tornadoes," says Hicks. "That’s what tore my lamb pen apart. It ripped the whole roof off. The side panels that form the barn were completely torn apart; we found them weeks later in the pasture. Trees were uprooted, mesquite trees." She doesn't even want to think about what would have happened if they had left their animals behind. "It was a really scary time."
When Hicks and her family were finally able to return about four or five days later, everything was in a shambles. "Our lambs couldn’t come out of the trailer for at least a week; we had no place to put them. The trees had fallen over the lamb pen. Nobody was back in town — we didn’t have help — huge [fallen] trees," says Hicks.
Hicks isn't alone in her troubles.
“We have received many reports from Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™ 4-H and FFA exhibitors that have experienced hardships due to Hurricane Harvey,” says Chris Boleman, HLSR executive director of agricultural competitions and exhibits, in his email to us. “These exhibitors have truly overcome serious and significant adversities, including losing their barns, having to relocate for several months, and even the loss of their livestock from the floods."
Students who raise animals (poultry, lambs, goats, swine and steer) for the junior market auctions already are faced with the expense of care and feeding for their animals, as well a tremendous commitment of time. So it's devastating to hear that some of the animals lost their lives due to the storm.
"It is a big financial commitment," says Hicks. You’re never guaranteed to get the money you spent back. Me and my brother go back and forth for Grand Champion lamb. Last year he ended up beating me, it came down to me and him, the buyer came in and spent so much on his lamb. He was paid back for feed, grooming, training, things like that."
Hicks, who is in her 14th year in 4-H, says the auction money helps to purchase an animal for the following year and for building up her college fund. "I haven’t won the lamb, but when I got Grand Reserve [for steers] I paid myself back and put some in savings."
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo guarantees a minimum payment for each exhibitor who qualifies for a junior market auction. Even though auction records were broken last year for the lambs, goats and barrows, any bidding amounts that exceed the fixed cap amount are used for scholarships and grants.
Hicks is also having to work harder to find a buyer this time around. Most years she's been able to work with business owners in town, but says that's harder to do because so many were affected by the tornadoes and she is having to look outside her community.
Some affected students have received a helping hand from RodeoHouston, as well as from regional 4-H clubs. "Much of the support that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo provided following the hurricane included a number of agricultural organizations to help these youth exhibitors in the affected areas," says HLS&R's Boleman. Hicks says that about a week after the storm, volunteers from Nueces County 4-H (Corpus Christi) came in to help with clearing trees, putting up posts and rebuilding the lamb pens.
This will be the last year participating for Hicks, who's become used to rising at 6:30 a.m., giving up going to the movies on a Friday night or missing her best friend's basketball game because she's been busy feeding steers or working with the lambs. She says being in 4-H not only helps to build leadership skills but also offers opportunities for community service through coat and canned food drives.
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"On Thanksgiving we give turkeys to families who can’t afford it," says Hicks. "We call that project 'Gifting Gobblers.' We go to the nursing home on Valentine’s Day and have a dance with them, get the residents out of their room even if they don’t dance. It's very rewarding to find out other ways to make people happy and help them out and change their lives."
Hicks has been accepted to the University of Texas at San Antonio and at Texas A&M, and is debating whether to pursue a biochemical or biomedical degree. "I want to be an allergy and asthma specialist and I’ll use all of my 4-H money to put me through college.
"I’m really excited, I’m really blessed."
To learn more about The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™ junior market auctions, visit rodeohouston.com.