The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry come to Cimarron county's aid

By Shelley Fowler

At first, I thought he was a rancher from out around Kenton as he walked through the door of the county fair building. He looked like one, anyway, dressed in faded blue jeans, a green sweatshirt, and wearing a pair of well-worn cowboy boots. As he walked by me, I offered him a smile and a “hello”. He walked back to where I stood, extended his hand and introduced himself. His name was Terry Peach, and yes, he had once been a rancher/farmer down near Woodward, but now he was the Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. He looked me straight in the eyes as he spoke, his handshake was firm - and I liked him from the get-go.

It was quite evident to me that Mr. Peach was on a mission! And that mission was to feed as many head of livestock in as short a time as was humanly possible. Over the next several days I watched this energetic man as he pored over county maps, his half-glasses poised on the bridge of his nose. I observed his friendly camaraderie with his team members. And I also sensed his weariness when he and the team returned to the warmth of the fair building after a long day of logistics and physical labor.

I was very impressed that Commissioner Peach had accompanied his team to Cimarron County and pitched in to help. On the day of his departure, I heard he was going to be leaving after the evening meal. I wanted so badly to stand up, daintily clink a silver spoon against my fluted glass to get the attention of my fellow diners, after which I would then offer some honest words of thankfulness to him and his team. But, alas! The glasses were Styrofoam, the spoons were plastic, and the laughter and conversation at the tables was much too loud. Instead, as I watched Commissioner Peach and his assistant walk out the door, and into the frigid night, I just silently thanked him and blessed him on his journey back home.

Commissioner Peach did achieve his mission, but not alone! He was aided by a wonderfully efficient and friendly team of experts who created, put into motion and accomplished what became known as the “2007 Cimarron County Ranch Rescue”. Each morning, after a cup of coffee and a breakfast of Sherry's donuts or a bowl of cereal, the team would assemble to discuss their objectives for that day. And each evening, cold and tired-eyed after a long day, they would reassemble, discuss how the day's events played out, and decide what tomorrow's objectives would be. The core group of the ODAFF consisted of: Dr. Mike Herrin, Incident Commander; Dr. Leslie Cole, Safety Officer; Joe Emberson, Chief of Logistics; Dr. Mike Pruitt, Chief of Operations; Mark Goeller, Air Operations Branch Director; Mitch Broiles, Chief of Finance; Steve Thompson, Liaison Officer; and Dr. Rick Woodbridge, Chief of Planning. They were joined by OEM agency representatives: Steve Palladino, Jackie Wright and Sam Talamantez.. Between all these men (and one woman) this Incident Command Team put into action what they had learned from hours of training for just the type of event that occurred in our county.

Under the direction of this team, other teams were formed to load bales of hay onto two Chinook helicopters brought in by the National Guard. The staging areas for the helicopters were at our local airport and on the highway near Lake Carl Etling. Sometimes the daily planning sessions produced great results, and the bales of hay found their marks.  And sometimes Mother Nature got in the way of those results, as did mechanical failures and logistics. But in the end, and after a mere four days, over 11,000 head of Cimarron County livestock had been fed - either by a bale of hay dropped from the sky, or by trucks hauling hay furnished by the state. The helicopters flew 43 mission hours. And over two hundred thousand pounds of hay were distributed. When you look at the numbers, the manpower and the time, only praise can be given to these teams! What they made happen was truly a work of art - and I am so thankful that these men (and one woman) knew what they were doing.

Like Commissioner Peach, the team members were friendly, direct and professional. But I had the opportunity to see the human side of several of them, as well. Even though he had much work to do, Mike Herrin, a horse vet from OKC, sat and visited with me one afternoon. Mike has worked with horses at race tracks in Oklahoma and Texas , and his enthusiasm for equines and for his job was evident. A very nice man, I offered him a lifetime pass to hunt pheasant on the Munson. I also had the chance to visit with another veterinarian, Dr. Leslie Cole, as she was waiting for the return of the helicopter. I told her about my challenged canine, Kiotee, and she affably offered some suggestions and explanations. I tried to stay out the way of Dr. Mike Pruitt, because by his own admission, he was demanding and very intense. So I just quietly observed him, as he politely talked with ranchers and platted drop sites on his county map that was covered in yellow and orange highlights.   I found that I was impressed with his demanding intensity! I made a trip to the Loaf ‘n Jug with Mitch Broiles, the finance chief, and those few moments were sheer pleasure, for he was a “city kid” and was effusive in his praise of the local people and how everyone helps everyone. And his laughter was infectious. I chatted just a little with Joe Emberson, the logistics chief, but tried to keep it brief, for his job was so consuming. And I just got to say “how are you doing?” to the other team members, generally when I was handing them a bowl of something or a cup of coffee. To a man (and one woman), these angels were good people, always thankful for what we were doing for them. And even when they were tired, I had only to listen to hear the joy that they felt for being able to help us.

And yet, I was sad to see them packing up their laptops and supplies, rolling up their county maps and preparing to leave Cimarron County . Like all the other members of all the other agencies who had walked into our lives, and instantly gone to work on our behalf, I was in awe of and felt such appreciation for how they did their jobs. And I had to wonder - without Terry Peach and his crack Incident Command Team being here, and if we had been left to figure out the rescue of livestock ourselves, how many cattle would have died that week? If there had been no Chinooks and no bales of hay trucked in at the behest of this team, how many head of livestock would the storm have killed? Our county was blessed and our livestock was saved by a group of angels from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. May we always remember that fact!