The same terrifying wall of water that blasted Ocracoke Island during Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6 is being blamed for washing 28 wild horses to their deaths in North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound.
All were members of a lesser-known wild herd of 49 horses on Cedar Island, between the Outer Banks and the mainland.
Only 21 members of the herd survived, including some that managed to swim from the sound to nearby islands, herd owner Woody Hancock told McClatchy news group.
Some of the dead horses have washed up at Cape Lookout National Seashore, while others remain missing and are presumed lost out to sea, officials said. All bore a brand identifying them as members of the Cedar Island herd, Hancock said.
“It was a mini tsunami,” Hancock told the McClatchy news group. “The horses normally see the water start to rise in a storm and migrate to higher ground, but they just didn’t have time. The shift in the wind happened too fast and they were taken off guard and washed off the island.
“They didn’t have a chance,” he said.
Hancock believes the island was hit with an 8-foot surge in water in just under an hour, and it was mostly the young horses who perished in the chaos.
“People who’ve lived on the island all their life, old timers, say they’ve never seen anything like what happened,” Hancock said. “It wasn’t like a normal hurricane. Areas that normally flood didn’t see flooding, and spots that never get it were devastated.”
The Cedar Island herd roamed freely on 1,000 acres of privately owned land and was tended by Hancock and a handful of others, including his wife, Nena Hancock, and fellow islander Clyde Styron.
There are two better-known herds on the Outer Banks — one at the Shackleford Banks and one at Corolla — and both herds are believed to have survived the storm without losses.
On the Shackleford Banks, one horse is believed to have gone into labor during the storm and gave birth to a foal, which survived.
Hurricane Dorian hit the Outer Banks on Sept. 6 as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds near 100 mph. The devastating storm surge came when the hurricane pushed water to the west, into coastal creeks and rivers and bays, and then pulled it back to the east as the winds shifted, experts say.
In the case of Ocracoke, a 7- to 8-foot-high surge from the sound flowed like rivers between homes, washed away vehicles and warped asphalt on the highway. Half of all the structures on the island were flooded, The News & Observer reported.
Protecting the wild herds on the Outer Banks has long been a challenge for animal lovers.
The horses are believed to have descended from stock freed centuries ago by early settlers, and they are fiercely independent. The stallions are known to fight viciously, biting and kicking each other, which means they cannot be safely corralled, even to save them from a storm.
Hancock says there’s irony in the 28 deaths, because it was believed Cedar Island was safer than the Shackleford Banks and Corolla, and his herd could be used to beef up other herds should they suffer major losses during a storm.
“This has really affected everybody on the island,” Hancock said. “All the horses were named after local people on the island and so every family felt a connection to the herd.”