Faith, Family, Friends, and Fortitude

DEVASTATED: Hurricane Michael left this Florida stallion barn without a roof last October (courtesy of Jodie Kelly-Baxley)

Meet the dressage pro who spearheaded rescue efforts after Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle

By Colleen Scott

Reprinted for the July/August 2019 issue of USDF Connection magazine

The path of a hurricane is hard to predict. Stay put or evacuate? If you go, which direction and how far? Move the horses? These are decisions that Destin, Florida, native and USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist Jodie Kelly-Baxley has been making all her life.
The daughter of a charter-boat captain, Kelly-Baxley, who operates Jodie Kelly Dressage in her hometown, learned from one of the best.

STEPPING UP: When Jodie Kelly-Baxley isn’t directing rescue efforts, she’s a winning dressage trainer/competitor. She’s pictured aboard Beth Godwin’s Caymus, the 2017 Adequan®/USDF Intermediate I Horse of the Year. (SUSANJSTICKLE.COM)

“Every storm is different and has a unique path,” Kelly-Baxley says. “If you’re going to evacuate with boats or horses, you have to do it days in advance. The storm may wobble, so you never know for sure what the right decision is.”

With Hurricane Michael projected to make landfall on October 10, 2018, Kelly-Baxley opted to evacuate the 30 horses in her care to Pensacola, about two hours inland. When Michael slammed into the Gulf Coast, it became the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous US since Andrew in 1992 and left an estimated $25.1 billion in damage in its wake.

The Aftermath

Kelly-Baxley and the horses returned to her Southern Cross Equestrian Center midweek following the hurricane to find the facility unscathed. Others in the area weren’t so lucky.

VOLUNTEER SPIRIT: Jodie Kelly-Baxley and her father, Brant Kelly, assisting at a hurricane-ravaged facility

“We kept hearing that barns and homes had been destroyed or damaged, and we couldn’t reach some people,” Kelly-Baxley says. “Nobody could confirm anything.” Frustrated with the lack of information and fearing for the safety of horses and humans alike, she and her parents took to the streets themselves. In her first Facebook post following the disaster, she wrote:

“The Florida Panhandle….We don’t wait for FEMA, we go to work. Neighbor helping neighbor. Ya see, in times like these we don’t cry because the government hasn’t shown up yet. Nope, we grab tools, sandwiches, water, and whatever we need to help each other. We drive back roads to reach our families.…Faith, family, friends, and fortitude. We are Panhandle Strong.”

Forgoing a scheduled trip to the 2018 Region 3 Great American/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, Kelly-Baxley and her family set out in their truck with supplies, ready to help.

“Like Something out of a Bad Movie”

On the first day of their rescue mission, Kelly-Baxley posted: “Today was like something out of a bad movie….The devastation is every bit as bad as anyone can imagine.”
One of the first places Kelly-Baxley and her parents checked on was Aqua Farms Sport Horses in Panama City, a noted Trakehner breeding operation.

“Sadly, Joe lost two horses in the storm,” Kelly-Baxley says of farm owner Joe Pimentel. “His stallion barn was destroyed, and his home was heavily damaged. He had no running water and no way of watering his horses. My dad was able to get his water running again with a generator.”

She adds: “Seeing a grown man cry over having running water really puts things into perspective.”

The impromptu rescue team also pitched in at Sara Warner’s Black Bay Farm, Grand Ridge, Florida. Warner’s mile-long driveway was covered with fallen trees that “looked like matchsticks, but they were giant trees,” recalls Kelly-Baxley. “We worked for a full day with chainsaws and only made it through a quarter of the way. Sara’s only access was via a swampy creek by canoe. She was hauling water in barrels behind her.” With additional help the next day, they were able to clear a path for Warner.

APB: More Help Needed

As the enormity of the hurricane damage began to sink in, Kelly-Baxley began recruiting assistance. “We put out messages on social media asking for people’s time, monetary donations, hay, grain, shavings, water, and other resources,” she says. The community responded, and soon Kelly-Baxley; her mother, Laurie Kelly; and other volunteers were operating a full-time “supply bank” effort.

ALL LOST: A steel barn reduced to rubble (COURTESY OF JODIE KELLY-BAXLEY)

“Most of the suppliers to the area, such as feed stores and grain suppliers, had been wiped out, too,” Kelly-Baxley explains. “So besides dealing with damaged property, the people in that area were dealing with a lack of supplies to care for their horses.”
The volunteers established central supply locations and directed people in need to the pickup points, where additional helpers sorted through and doled out the badly needed provisions.

All Creatures Large and Larger

The Alaqua Animal Refuge, Freeport, Florida, began assisting pet owners immediately following Hurricane Michael, but the facility soon became overwhelmed with requests. Alaqua officials asked Kelly-Baxley and her mother to take over the management of the large-animal rescue and rehoming efforts. The duo soon had goats, pigs, donkeys, and ducks in their care.

The Bigger Picture

Although Kelly-Baxley missed last year’s Regional Championships, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.

“We all take our jobs very seriously as [dressage] trainers,” she says, “but it’s amazing how unimportant a 20-meter circle becomes when someone an hour away from you doesn’t have running water.”

Colleen Scott lives, works, and rides in Kansas City, Missouri. She competes with her half-Arabian mare, Kiss a Girl LOA, on the Arabian circuit in the hunter pleasure division. 

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