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What happened to Bella? A Texas family waits to learn a horse’s fate in Harvey flooding

By: Todd C. Frankel, The Washington Post
September 3, 2017 Updated: September 3, 2017 at 6:43 pm
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A horse stands in flood water on Sept. 1, 2017, in Wharton, Texas. (Ana Ramirez/The Victoria Advocate via AP)

 The last time she saw the family horse, the floodwaters were rushing in.

It was after midnight Wednesday. Dark. The storm was fierce. Two feet of standing water turned into four in just a couple of hours, and it was starting to invade the house. Their cars were nearly submerged. They needed to get out. A boat suddenly appeared in their yard, riding atop a new wall of water.

Nazirah Sly, 43, jumped in along with her husband and 18-year-old daughter, Alicia. They also loaded five dogs and a few bags from the house. The horse lived in a small stable in the yard. She was a brown American quarter horse that had been a Christmas present for the daughter four years earlier. The teen was the one who named the horse Bella.

There was no time to save Bella. The boat was full. Horses don’t go on boats. The water was rising and Sly said a prayer. She recalled looking back at the horse as they floated away.

That was nearly three days earlier. Now, mother and daughter stood on the edge of their still-flooded neighborhood. The streets were navigable only by boat. They didn’t know whether Bella was alive or hurt or just gone.

“I really want to see her,” the daughter said.

“It’s killing me, waiting for her to come out,” her mother said.

Thousands of pets and farm animals were left behind in the panic that followed the flooding in Texas from Harvey. In this small neighborhood, residents lived alongside 60 horses and 30 cows for years, an unexpected taste of the country smack in the middle of an otherwise suburban subdivision, bounded by major highways and massive oil refineries along the Gulf Coast.

“In this area, when it comes to your animals,” Sly said, “they’re your family.”

The decision to leave Bella had been eating at her. But what choice did she have? They had no warning, no time. They had untied Bella before fleeing in the boat, hoping that might give the horse a chance.

The flood had taken their house. It had taken their cars. Sly didn’t know whether she could stand to lose anything more.

Now, animal rescue crews from as far away as Abilene — a seven-hour drive — were riding in boats and on horseback combing the neighborhood. Three cowboys in wide-brimmed hats trotted in as far as they could to check on the animals. Black cows could be seen huddling outside a warehouse on a small island of high ground.

Several horse trucks sat waiting along the highway, next to the mother and daughter. Dozens of horses had been pulled from the neighborhood earlier and taken to an emergency animal shelter in nearby Beaumont. Those horses were alive. Some were injured. None of them was Bella.

“Come on, baby. Come on. Mama is right here,” Sly said, urging the horse to appear. “I know you’re in there.”

A boat edged down the street, headed for Sly, standing on the opposite side of a culvert covered by chest-deep water. A man in National Guard fatigues jumped off and waded through. He’d seen the horses.

“Those horses do not want to come out,” the guardsman said.

Sly and her daughter pressed him for information. They tried to describe Bella: brown with a white stripe on her nose, friendly, maybe skittish around strangers. Alicia Sly pulled up a picture on her cellphone.

“Is this the horse?” she asked.

He looked. He didn’t know. He said a few horses appeared to be suffering from rain rot. Horses and cows can’t be exposed to wet for too long. Some were suffering. A colt and a donkey were dead.

Sly’s husband, Orin, handed Bella’s birth certificate to his wife, a piece of paper made fragile from folding and refolding. It featured a drawing of a horse with a diagram of Bella’s distinctive marks.

“I don’t want anybody to say nothing about that not being my horse,” Sly said.

One hour passed. Then two. Mom and daughter grew anxious. Sly bounced on her heels.

Then Alicia Sly started shouting.

“Bella!”

The teen was running toward her mom. She pointed at a horse trailer behind a military surplus truck with four-foot tires coming around a corner. The trailer was crowded with six horses.

“Yes!” Sly said, seeing it herself. “Yes! There is my baby!”

The trailer pulled up across from her. They were separated by the flooded culvert. Sly looked like she was about to jump in and thought better of it. She held the horse’s papers.

“We found my baby,” she said. “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you.”

Mom and daughter called out Bella’s name. The horse was in the back and had little room to move. Their shouts competed with the roar of cars on the highway and fan boats in the neighborhood. But they swore the horse heard them.

“She’s looking at me!” Alicia Sly said.

“Bella!” her mom said. “She’s looking!”

After the hurricane and the flood and all the loss, they were clinging to this.

“You happy, baby?” Sly asked.

“Yes,” Alicia said. “I just want to touch her.”

“I know, baby. I know.”

Read this story at washingtonpost.com.

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