By Sephanie L. Church, News Editor – The Horse, Sept. 2005
"I wasn't leaving," said Lucien Mitchell, 40, who stayed behind in New Orleans for nearly a week caring for 22 carriage horses and mules after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city, destroying structures and lives, and leaving water that overwhelmed levees and produced catastrophic flooding. "If you love animals like I love animals, you'd stick with it, too. We did what we had to do to save them."
Mitchell is a hero to many horse owners and enthusiasts after he overcame dangerous conditions to save as many of the horses and mules that he could from Charbonnet Mid-City Carriage Company last week. Twenty-seven of the animals were evacuated prior to the storm coming and the waters rising. But before the trailers could get back, 22 animals ended up stranded in chest-high water, and Mitchell and Darnell Stewart, 34, another Charbonnet employee, weren't going to let the horses perish.
"We got them out right after the storm and kept them in the walls of the stable," said Mitchell. On Tuesday night, Aug. 30, after realizing how rapidly the water was rising after the levee broke, Mitchell and Stewart began moving the horses out to higher ground at a nearby park, sometimes swimming along with the horses in the rapidly rising water.
"After the storm passed, the water was up, and we were hauling animals, one at a time, in chest-high water to the park. He's short, I'm short…it was really rough," said Mitchell. "It took us hours--a couple of them stayed in the stalls because they were the biggest horses--they are Percherons--until the next day. Darnell's personal horse, (Brandy, a tobiano Paint that had been moved to Charbonnet from another stable before Katrina to be evacuated with the others), was also left in the barn, so we turned him loose (into the courtyard)."
Once the mules and horses were in the park, Mitchell and Stewart began tending to their needs. "We had them tied to the park fence and gave them enough rope so that they could eat," Mitchell added. "We had feed buckets from the stable and we were keeping them fed and watered and exercised, and we'd let them graze. I was walking in chest-high water and carrying feed and making sure they ate."
The fresh water came from five-gallon jugs that were obtained from National Guard members on an Interstate bridge on the outskirts of New Orleans. "We rode up on the bridge and pulled them back in a roll cart," explained Mitchell. The two took turns sleeping on a bridge at the park, "playing lookout," since New Orleans residents were continually trying to take the horses and mules.
A "dragging incident" described by The Horse in an earlier story was one of Mitchell's more adrenaline-filled moments. "People were trying to take animals to try to get to safety and cutting them loose," described Mitchell. "While we were fighting to get them back, one of the mules took off with me. Tootsie…she's a strong mule, a very strong mule. I'm about 155 pounds soaking wet, so you can imaginewhat I looked like--I was waterskiing!"
Mitchell managed to lead Tootsie back fairly close to the park, then he climbed on Fidel, his favorite horse, in order to get her the rest of the way into the park. "He acted like a champion," said Mitchell. "I guess I'm partial to him--he helped me out of that."
Five days into the nearly week-long vigil, Stewart rode Brandy to go look for help, but saw no chances of them getting the horses out of New Orleans. On his return trip, he injured his foot on some underwater debris. Stewart knew he needed medical attention, so he returned to the Interstate bridge for help. "Brandy swam for two hours trying to get to high ground," Stewart said. When he got to his destination, "I stopped and sat down and tied him up to a rail on the Interstate and waited and waited forever. (Brandy's) knees were busted up pretty bad from falling down in the water and hitting the curb."
Stewart was flown to San Antonio for medical treatment and Mitchell retrieved Brandy. Stewart was frustrated that he had to leave the horse and Mitchell during his brief stay in San Antonio, "I wanted to come back and see my horses."
About this time, things began looking bleak for Mitchell at the park. "I ran out of food except for a package of hot dogs, but I stuck it out. I wasn't leaving; I knew that," he said. "They tried to rescue me twice and I said, 'If you can find a way for the horses to go with me, I'll go, if not, I'm not going.' "
One horse had already died in the park. "I was single handed at the end and was drug a few times--I just hung in there," said Mitchell.
Help arrived Sunday, Sept. 4, around 3 p.m. CDT, when Louis Charbonnet (owner of the carriage company), Mitchell's father Lucien Mitchell Sr., and other Charbonnet employees arrived with rigs.
"I had just prayed and hoped, and I seen the boss coming in with the trucks and trailers," said Mitchell. "We had only had communication with the police--we lost our cell phones and other phones the first night."
The 21 remaining animals were loaded on the trailers and brought to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La. One horse with a history of health problems died on the trailer, and another horse was down and in shock on its arrival and had to be euthanatized.
"When they came to get us, I was glad to see my father again, glad to get the animals out, glad to be alive," Mitchell said. "I'm sorry I lost three though…I was trying to get them all out.”
The 19 surviving carriage horses and mules joined another 27 that had been evacuated to safety prior to Katrina's landfall. All 19 survivors from the Sunday rescue are medically stable. "Brandy's a little stiff, but I think he's going to make it," said Stewart. "We've been treating his knees…he's my barrel racing horse and my parade horse. He's been my partner, and he's a hero now.”
"We worked together the whole time," added Mitchell. "The whole crew works like a family. Mr. Sheldon made sure I had a home to stay in, and we're all in the house (Mitchell, his father, and Stewart in east Baton Rouge). We've just been sticking together like family. I hadn't heard from some of my family, then I did...everyone's OK now, and so I can rest."
Both Mitchells and Stewart are lifelong New Orleans residents with nowhere to live in the long-term. "Finances would help, anything they can spare, it doesn't have to be much," said Mitchell about their current plight. "The business is gone. All three of us are in the same house and running out of money and food."
When The Horse thanked Mitchell for taking time to talk to us, he replied, "I was talking to mules for sevendays, so talking to a human is a blessing."
Mitchell was surprised to hear that many readers had contacted The Horse,
wanting to help him and to praise him for his service. "It wasn't about being a
hero or nothing like that," said Mitchell. "It was just the love of an animal,
and I wasn't going to leave them at all. I own two horses of my own with my dad,
and we can't find them---we're still kind of shook up about that."