Losses caused by natural disasters such as drought, excessive rains or hurricanes have had dramatic impacts on agricultural revenue and costs and the well-being of humans and animals. Losses of capital assets and other farm infrastructure have had far-reaching effects on economic viability. Louisiana State University Agricultural Center (LSU AgCenter) personnel are uniquely positioned and often called upon to assess the economic damage resulting after the occurrence of such natural disasters.   

Unfortunately, Louisiana has had its share of natural disasters over the last several years. Since 2000, assessments of the physical damage sustained to the agricultural industry have been conducted and economic impacts have been estimated in eight out of 12 years for four major hurricanes, two tropical storms, three incidences of prolonged drought conditions, and one summer of excessive rains. The economic impacts associated with natural disasters have been estimated at nearly $5 billion to the Louisiana’s agriculture, aquaculture, and fisheries industries.

While similarities can be found across agricultural disasters, the one thing that became increasingly evident over the years is that each disaster event has its own unique set of issues and impacts depending on the magnitude and duration of the event. In some cases, as with drought conditions, the impact tends to focus on lost revenue due to crop failure and lower productivity. In others, as was the case with the 2005 hurricanes, the number and extent of the impacts can be much more varied and challenging. Identifying these impacts and potential effects through assessments of physical and quality losses and estimates of resulting economic damages is important to policy makers, government agencies, and researchers in targeting assistance. Since these assessments are often requested of Extension with very short timelines, having a set of strategic procedures has proven to be necessary to meet deadlines and still maintain the reliability and accuracy of the assessment.

Damage assessment requests are typically made by government agencies and private organizations after a natural disaster.  For Louisiana, these requests usually come to the Extension Service. The one common theme in the requests is that they all require the provision of estimates in a very short time, often less than a month.   

The desire to respond quickly to these requests can compromise the ability to adequately and accurately depict the nature of the damage. Experience has shown that damage estimates calculated in haste can be significantly overstated. Overestimated damage does however provide additional political leverage to increase the money received from federal disaster programs (Kliesen, 1994). As such, there is a delicate balance that must be navigated between the timeliness and accuracy of a damage assessment.

Historically, agricultural damage assessments have been used to provide policy makers with a basis for seeking disaster assistance not provided in traditional farm policy legislation. The need to understand the depth and breadth of the impacts is critical to effectively assist the agricultural industry in formulating a plan to respond to and recover from a natural disaster.  While the agricultural industry can experience multiple impacts, many such as crop failures, yield reductions, or liquidation of livestock typically have an effect of a year or less. Other impacts such as saltwater intrusion or coastal erosion resulting from hurricanes are longer run in nature and may need more comprehensive policy solutions to restore agricultural productivity or improve societal welfare.  However, Extension’s initial role in the time given is generally to come up with an assessment of more immediate agricultural damages.