In June 2001, as Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than 30 inches of rain on Harris County, DeDe Baxley Lanoue rushed to Cypress Trails, a horse farm near Cypress Creek that has flooded repeatedly for years. Lanoue, a horse trainer at a neighboring place in Humble, had gotten a frantic call that morning from one of the teenagers Cypress Trails owner Darolyn Butler left in charge saying more than 30 horses were trapped in the water. When Lanoue got there, she jumped into the water to try to save some of them.
The horses were panicked, but slowly volunteers got them out of the water. Lanoue was helping guide a trio of horses past the submerged wire fences that scratched their legs, through the rough current created by water gushing through two underpasses on the bridge, and up the concrete sides of the Cypresswood Drive bridge. Two horses were safely on the road when the third began to move up the side. The horse's hooves slipped on the concrete and he fell with a heavy splash into the water. Before anyone could move, the animal was sucked under the bridge. “There was nothing we could do,” Lanoue says now. “They found his body a week later.”
Fifteen years later, when the banks of Cypress Creek spilled over again last month, sweeping over Cypress Trails and once again trapping horses in fast-moving floodwaters, Lanoue read the stories and watched footage of the rescues, frustrated nothing had changed. “Repeated stupidity does not constitute an accident,” Lanou says. “There's no excuse for this.” While Houston was dealing with historic flooding on April 18, not only were people being rescued from their cars, but animal lovers were putting their lives in danger to rescue more than 70 horses stranded in the water at Cypress Trails.
“It's flooded the same way over and over and she has lost horses the same way,” Laura Wilson, who used to stable horses nearby, says. “She's on a cheap piece of land down in the flood zone, and she keeps more than 70 horses on it. Darolyn would have been better off turning them loose on the road instead of leaving them there.”
Butler responded to Houston Press requests for comment with an email showing an aerial photo of the property, a description of how brutal the currents were and how bad the flood was, and she noted that Harris County has admitted it never should have built a solid bridge on that spot on Cypresswood Drive since it has subsequently increased flooding. "I have been on this property since 1974," she writes. "There was very minimal flooding up to 1981, when the bridge was built."
She also says her critics exaggerate. "I lost one horse 15 years ago. That's not exactly a chronic problem," Butler told the Press in an interview. "Heck yeah, I wish I'd had them out during this last flood, but I didn't ignore warning signs because there were no warning signs."
Cypress Trails, composed of about 11 acres of land along Cypress Creek, has a long history of flooding. The bulk of it, about nine acres, is located in a floodway while the rest is in a 100-year flood plain, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. Butler is allowed to keep dozens of horses on the place, despite the fact it floods regularly. Plus, according to people who have in the past had to rescue her horses, when faced with predictions of heavy rains, Butler tends to bet it won't flood instead of evacuating her horses. “She always says it happened as such a surprise,” L.A. Kaiser, owner of the neighboring horse farm, Sovereign Farms, says. “I don't know how it's a surprise at this point. I had to watch horses die during this last flood. I'm not surprised anymore.”
Butler started cobbling together Cypress Trails in 1974. Butler, an Oklahoma beauty queen brought up around horses, bought a small house on two and a half acres of land near the creek. She fell in love with the man next door and they married, combining their two properties, and they bought more land and built a house even closer to the creek because her husband thought it was beautiful. Flooding was never an issue until the Cypresswood Drive bridge was constructed, Butler states in an open letter to Harris County officials. “Prior to 1984, high water had never gone over the slab of our original brick home. After the bridge installation and the continuing development of Houston, flooding has become a way of life,” she stated in the letter, which she submitted in 2002.
Critics say Butler never adjusted to this new reality. In the 1980s, Butler and her family were rescued by airboat during the first flood. Butler says she and her horse were almost swept away when they tried to go through the floodwaters during the first storm. The water was so high that horses swam over fences and were led to safety by boat. However, there were only about four horses on the property then.
Meanwhile, Butler rose to prominence with endurance riding, in which competitors ride 25 to 100 miles in a day. In the 1990s, she opened Cypress Trails, offering endurance training and trail rides along Spring Creek and Cypress Creek.
Since 1997, Cypress Creek has risen more than 62 feet, the level that cuts off road access, and has been out of its banks more than 90 times, according to the Harris County Flood Control Stream Elevation Gauge on Cypresswood Creek. In 2002 the property qualified for Harris County Flood Control's voluntary buyout program after Allison, but Butler wrote Harris County officials that she could accept a buyout only if they offered enough money for her to buy a comparable place or if they gave her a 50-year lease for 55 acres adjacent to her property, according to court records. The scope of what the county can negotiate in the program is limited, and the buyout never happened.
Lanoue started working nearby in 1998. She and her boss, Sharon Hyatt, got used to helping Butler move her horses after heavy rains. “The most frustrating part is how preventable this is. If you choose to be in this industry and you take custody of these animals, you are responsible for the animals, and to leave it where you know that flood is going to happen should be criminal,” Lanoue says.
When Lanoue realized Tropical Storm Allison was going to hit, she called Butler to warn her. Butler was at an endurance competition and told Lanoue to call the people she'd left watching over the farm. But when Lanoue called the two teenage girls left in charge of the horses, the girls explained they were at the mall and would check creek levels when they got back. Butler says the horses weren't moved because an employee didn't follow her orders.
By the time Butler got home, the horses were at Sharon Hyatt's farm. Butler picked them up and took them to a pasture near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, about six miles away. Then she returned and yelled at Hyatt, and Lanoue and the other employees, because they hadn't saved her prized champion horse. “We were doing whatever we could to get hold of whatever horses we could. It's not like the horses had tags on them saying, 'I'm the most valuable, so rescue me first,'” Lanoue says.
The same scenario was acted out again in this year's flood. This time, Kaiser was the one who warned Butler about weather reports and potential flooding. At about 6:40 a.m., Kaiser checked on the horses, suspecting they hadn't been moved.
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The sun was coming up and Kaiser could see horses bobbing in the water and hear them splashing. “They would start screaming and that would be followed by bubbles, a drowning gulp. It was something you don't ever want to see,” Kaiser says. She says she never saw Butler. Kaiser took in more than 50 horses collected from Cypress Trails, providing feed and calling in a vet to tend to the injured ones, she says.
Butler, who posted her account of the flood on her website, says she checked weather reports until 2 a.m. She says she didn't evacuate her horses before the flood because Harris County Flood Control advised people to stay put even if their homes were flooding. By 4 a.m., she had to choose between saving horses or vehicles, so she saddled up and rode out to rescue her horses. “They followed me into the barn like lambs, but when we were in the process of haltering them, the horses spooked and broke out of the barn,” she states. Some ran into the arena and tangled in fencing, while others ran into floodwaters. Butler and an employee swam to the arena to rescue the ones tangled in fencing and were trapped for more than two hours until law enforcement rescued them. She worked all day with volunteers to herd and rescue horses, she writes. She defends herself against the people who saw her eat a doughnut by saying it was her only meal that day.
So why doesn't she leave if the place has such a history of flooding? Butler told the Press she doesn't think anyone will buy the land or that the county buyout program will pay enough to get new land out of a flood zone. "I hate it worse than anybody, but I'm so trapped. The only other thing to do is to say okay, I'm not going to have this business anymore; sell the horses and only keep three for pleasure," she says, but she notes many of her horses would have ended up in the slaughterhouse if she hadn't taken them. "That's another thing I don't talk about often. Yes, I've lost three horses to the floods, but look at the number of horses I've saved."
On April 18, 75 horses were trapped in floodwaters. So far, we know two are dead and one is still missing.