Flooded Texas ranchers struggle to safeguard stranded herds

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, among the many victims of Hurricane Harvey are farmers and ranchers who live and work just outside the Houston metropolitan area.

Tomeka Weatherspoon of Houston Public Media went to one ranch to learn about the damage and the recovery efforts.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON, Houston Public Media: Thousands of acres drown in a lake of floodwater.

JOHN LOCKE, Cattle Rancher, J.D. Hudgins Ranch: And it was just worse than we ever could have imagined.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: These shots are from last week in Wharton County, Texas, just an hour southwest of Houston, where somewhere around 60,000 cattle are usually roaming ash.

But after weathering record-breaking rainfall in Tropical Storm Harvey, ranchers like John Locke emerged from the storm and were devastated when they couldn't find their cattle.

JOHN LOCKE: That was my entire livelihood out there. That was our entire herd of cattle. So we went to bed that night thinking there was a good possibility that we had lost everything.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: But they didn't. A desperate search by helicopter, and they found the missing cattle, hundreds of them, stuck in rainwater and massive spillover from the Colorado River.

JOHN LOCKE: What we didn't account for is the resiliency of these animals and how smart they are. And we found them in places where we don't know how they got there, but, basically, they swam to higher ground.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: Rancher Coleman Locke, John's father, says he's never seen anything like this flood.

COLEMAN LOCKE, Cattle Rancher, J.D. Hudgins Ranch: Where we're walking right now, the water would have been about thigh-deep on me, probably at least two-feet-deep here. And you can actually see where the water ran across the road and cut grooves in the gravel. So, this was all totally underwater.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: Now, it does flood in this area from time to time, but between the rain and the river, this time around, it completely disrupted the ranchers' way of life.

COLEMAN LOCKE: I know my son has been out there in the water for two days at least waist-deep working, trying to either move cows to higher ground or get hay to them and see that they're OK.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: A big priority right now is just getting to the cattle, so the animals don't starve. First, the ranchers used airboats, but now at a middle point between flooded and dry, they're working in hard dirt, pools of dirty water and deep mud.

JOHN LOCKE: We're on a larger area. We're dealing with ground that doesn't support equipment and doesn't support horses. So, we're going to try to get this hay out there. I have got about three different ideas of, OK, if this doesn't work, we are going to do this, and if this doesn't work, we're going to do this.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: All of this land should dry fast in the Texas heat, making the task much easier.

But even the cattle are worn out from this whole ordeal. It will be weeks before days on the ranch are back to normal.

JOHN LOCKE: We see this flood about once every 10 to 15 years, which it flooded twice last year. And I would say on a scale of one to 10, a normal flood is a two. This time, we prepared for a six, and what we saw was about a 12.

But every day we go, it gets wetter, and every time the sun comes up, things get a little bit better. And we're moving in the right direction. We just have to keep holding on.

TOMEKA WEATHERSPOON: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Tomeka Weatherspoon in Egypt, Texas.

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