When a tornado rages across the plains of Oklahoma, the immediate focus is on people, pets and property.
Largely forgotten are the horses, cattle and other large livestock caught in a twister’s path. These animals were thrown, twisted and tangled into a hodgepodge of cinder blocks, telephone wires and trees as Monday’s funnel cloud swept through the Oklahoma City area.
Mike Roman always keeps these animals in the forefront when a twister touches land. It was no different this time.
On Wednesday, Roman — a single mother of two whose name defies her mascara-laced eyelashes and curly blond hair fashioned into a bun — spent most of her day at the Terry Ranch on SW 149th Street near the suburb of Moore, hauling away the carcasses of horses, some weighing up to 1,800 pounds.
“You don’t realize that there are these animals that don’t know where to run,” she said on her way to a landfill with 11 dead horses, her first pickup of the day.
Svelte with glitter-polished nails, Roman knows how to operate a Bobcat and easily maneuvered around traffic in her Dodge diesel truck with a 16-foot-long trailer. Later, she would end up in the middle of a traffic conga line, backed up for miles.
By 7:30 Wednesday morning, Roman and her worker, Dianna Barlow, trudged around muddy red clay on the Terry Ranch, inspecting a more than 10-foot-tall pile of snarled horses. All had been retired after years of racing. A female donkey and her colt, a few other horses from a nearby farm and one pot-bellied pig also were in the heap.
“Are you kidding me?” Barlow said to herself.
Roman, 40, grabbed an 8-foot-long metal chain and tied it to the leg of a bloated and bloodied brown thoroughbred. She hooked the chain to a Bobcat driven by her fiance, Kevin Morgan, who was helping her.
Spreading out all the stiff and mud-caked horses made it easier for Morgan to pick up each one with a forklift attached to the Bobcat before propelling it up high into the back of Roman’s trailer, which can hold up to 12 large horses.
The horses had just been fed dinner, and many were in the barn when the tornado hit, Roman said.
Roman’s 14-year-old daughter, Shania Sisson, looked out on the muddied land, yellow insulation caramelized along the scattered tree branches.
“You don’t see this on a daily basis,” Sisson said. She stomped around the mud that was sticking to her rubber boots and later dried as tough as glue.
Roman, a horse owner herself, said she had broken down to cry several times because of the magnitude of horse deaths.
“This is the worst I’ve seen,” she said.
She picked up 28 carcasses during a 2009 tornado that hit nearby Norman and parts of Moore. This time she has picked up 52 so far, she said.
Roman grew up in Salinas, Calif., and moved to Oklahoma in 1999.
As a mother of two teenage daughters struggling to make a living, Roman has done what she can to get by. She has waitressed, driven big rigs, operated heavy machinery and climbed telephone poles in California for utility companies — even when she was eight months pregnant.
She started her company four years ago after a predicament.
“I lost a horse and had nobody to turn to,” Roman said. Renting her own dozer and disposing of the animal in a landfill herself would have cost her nearly $600.
Now, she charges her clients $190. For the disaster, she gave Betty Terry a 30% discount.
Terry, an older woman who has co-owned the farm with her son and daughter for more than a decade, visited the land in the middle of a haul.
“I appreciate everything,” Terry told Roman.
“Every one of the horses I picked up from you was very emotional,” Roman answered, stopping to wipe a tear from her cheek.
On her second trip to the landfill, Roman ended up in the middle of a long line of dump trucks heading toward the same destination.
Men driving the trucks pinched their noses at her haul as she zipped by.
“There’s a lot of men who have a weak, weak stomach for this,” she said, laughing as she negotiated her truck to the top of the landfill. Flies hovered above the trailer.
“This isn’t even bad,” Barlow said. “It’s a walk in the park with this smell.”