Derecho Forces Evacuation of 25,000 Pigs After Winds Rip Barns Apart

( Abby Maxwell )

It started off as any other Monday. Abby Maxwell, 30, made the 73-mile drive to Keystone, Iowa, where she oversees 53,000 head of hogs located at 19 different sites in her role as a field manager for JBS Live Pork. After a rather crazy day at work, she got into her car and headed home. Along the way, she got an unexpected call from her husband.

“He asked me, ‘How fast are you driving?’” Maxwell recalls. “I told him, and he said, ‘You need to drive faster because you're not going to make it with this storm coming.’ And he was right. I did not.”

Maxwell describes that moment in one word: terrifying.

“I was about 12 miles from my house when the derecho winds hit me. My car was blowing all over the road. I truly think my car was being picked up at one point. All of a sudden, I saw a tree fly about 20 feet in front of my car,” she says. 

At that point, she could see a house with their porch light on in the distance.  

“Thank goodness he let me in,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have made it home otherwise.”

Damage caused by the derecho winds that struck Keystone, Iowa.

A Call to Arms
Maxwell immediately sent a text out to her growers to let them know the storm was coming fast. She asked them to send her an update as soon as they could. Less than an hour later, if it was even that long, the phone calls and texts started coming in.

“Need trucks now. Barns down.”

Maxwell hopped back into her car and drove back to Keystone. For the past eight years, she’s managed the Keystone territory where she oversees all operations from checking in pigs when they arrive to managing feed, budgets, facilities and more.  

“It was the eeriest feeling when I came up over the hill at the first site because I had just been there three hours before,” Maxwell describes. “Everything looked different. It was flat, there was debris everywhere. When I got to my first pig barn, I could see the pigs standing on the slats because all the walls were gone and the roofs were gone.”

She jumped in the truck with one of her growers to assess the damage at the different sites. She started calling people within the company to send trucks because they had 25,000 pigs at eight sites that they needed to evacuate.

Not only were buildings down and pigs trapped, but they had no power, feed or water. Cell towers were down, too, making it impossible to reach all of her team. She says that was one of the hardest parts – driving around trying to locate everyone to see if they were safe. 

Abby Maxwell stands in front of damage at one the hog farms she oversees.

Damage Assessment
Each site was affected by the storms a little differently, Maxwell says. One barn just lost a piece of its roof. A couple barns had their roof fall in and the entire ceiling was laying on top of the feeders and gates. Two different barns had one half of the barn flipped up on top of itself and rolled in a big ball on top of the gates as well. 

One site was gone. 

“It was completely blown away,” she describes. “The foundation, the slats and the concrete walls, are still there. But everything else is gone.”

The pigs came through the storm surprisingly well, Maxwell adds. Out of 25,000 head evacuated between all the sites, less than 50 pigs were lost due to the storm.

“Pigs are incredibly resilient. It’s really amazing when you think about how much they went through to survive that storm,” she says. 

All the pigs stayed contained within the buildings, so they did not have pigs running through fields or getting out onto the roads.

“The pigs they almost acted like it was a playdate,” Maxwell says. “They were excited and happy to see us. They were running around like crazy amidst the debris. It really is amazing how strong pigs are.”

Maxwell says 1,200 of the pigs evacuated were market-ready and shipped to a packing plant right away. Meanwhile, 10,000 newly weaned pigs were sent to a vacant barn near Ottumwa, Iowa. The other pigs, ranging from 80 to 180 pounds, were sent to vacant barns throughout Iowa that were sitting empty and waiting to receive pigs.

“I can’t commend the truck drivers who stepped up to help us enough,” she says. “They were helping us sort through the rubble to find pigs. They certainly didn't have to do that. They could have sat in their air-conditioned trucks waiting for us. But they didn’t. They were all phenomenal.”

The truck drivers were phenomenal, says Abby Maxwell. They went above and beyond to help us.

Where Do You Go From Here?
All of the barns were evacuated within 48 hours. On the second day, a veterinarian was on site. Maxwell was also joined by about a dozen other JBS field managers and production managers to help evacuate and euthanize animals as needed. 

“We had to euthanize some of the pigs due to large lacerations or broken legs,” Maxwell says. By the end of the day Tuesday, we were also facing some pigs experiencing heat stress because they were in the direct sunlight for so long.”

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