NEW ULM - A New Ulm native with a strong passion for horses, pets and their owners came to their aid after the May 20 tornadoes that tore through Oklahoma.
Casey Eckstein, a 2000 New Ulm High School graduate and the granddaughter of the late local veterinarian Dr. A. J. Eckstein, recently graduated as a veterinary technician from a school in the Twin Cities.
"I was watching the tornado coverage online and on television and decided to start contacting places there I thought may need help," said Eckstein, who works as a veterinary technician at Goldmount Veterinary Center in Sherburn.
New Ulm native Casey Eckstein wanders through tornado-ravaged parts of Oklahoma during her recent trip there to help lost pets and owners reunite. She took a trailer load of donated medical supplies and food to the Oklahoma City area.
"People at the Animal Resource Center in Oklahoma City and Horse Helpers Association told me they badly needed animal supplies so I called a number of area suppliers and got donations from companies and people I knew."
Eckstein packed cat and dog food, horse feed and medical supplies including some of her own items, into a three-horse trailer with living quarters and left for Oklahoma with a veterinary center coworker. Driving continuously on I-35, they made the trip in 12 hours.
"Our first stop was at a mobile home village where about 200 units were completely leveled," she said. "Some of the animals [pets] died before we got there, but there were lots of dogs and cats with sprains and lacerations. We cleaned and bandaged the wounds and took them to a makeshift shelter at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds, where many of them were united with their owners. The shelter got dozens of new animals daily. We helped vaccinate and give them physicals."
"We visited a horse farm that lost nearly all their horses in the storm," Eckstein said. "That really touched me. I've always had a strong love for animals, thanks to my family, especially my grandfather."
When she first arrived in Oklahoma, Eckstein said she was in disbelief how bad the storm damage was.
"I didn't think it could possibly be true to destroy so many homes and buildings," Eckstein said. "Debris were scattered everywhere. Cars were blown up against trees. It's crazy to think how powerful Mother Nature can be. I even saw washing machines and lawn mowers in trees."
Providing assistance to tornado victims had a powerful impact on Eckstein.
"It was an experience I'll never forget. It was a great feeling seeing the emotions on the faces of people when I told them where I was from and what I was there for," she said. "The best part was seeing families being reunited with their pets. Walking through the animal shelters was sad. All the animals looked very tired and depressed. Some wouldn't even eat."
Her animal shelter duties included trying to comfort animals and get them to start eating.
"It was neat to see how animals would perk up the second their owners walked in," Eckstein said. "The experience makes me think to never take anything for granted anymore because in the blink of an eye, everything can be gone."
Despite being what she called "completely exhausted" when she returned home last week, Eckstein didn't take an extra day off work to recover.
Last Friday night just 11 days after an EF5 tornado killed 24 in Moore, Okla., five tornadoes - including a half-mile wide twister - hit the Oklahoma City area, killing a mother, her baby, and at least three other people.
Semis were tossed around and turned upside down on Interstate 40 and buildings were torn from their frames. The storm was rated an EF3 in intensity. Baseball-sized hail and widespread flooding were reported.
A specially-designed storm-chasing vehicle, made to withstand tornadoes and high winds, was pushed 200 yards by the latest Oklahoma storm.
Eckstein said considering storms that hit the area again, she'd like to go back to Oklahoma City at some point but she will have to do it soon or wait until after a six-week internship she plans to begin July 1 at a horse hospital in Lexington, Ky.
"After seeing all those pets and destruction in Oklahoma last week, I must admit I really spoiled my pets when I got home," she said. "...I have a lot of memories, good and bad, that I'll never forget."
(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org).