In the days prior to Hurricane Isaac dumping over five inches of rain on his Jonesville, La., operation, Buddy Pierce was hustling to harvest what he could.
“We were blowing and going and cut until 4 or 5 in the morning in the days before Isaac,” said Pierce on Tuesday (September 4). “The day that Isaac arrived we actually cut until about 1:30 in the afternoon. It was cloudy but we cut until it rained us out.
“I’d guess we had about eight hours of sleep in the three days leading up to Isaac.”
The hurricane hit Jonesville, in the east part of the state, on August 30.
“Actually, we only got around 2.5 inches of rain initially. Then, Friday night into Saturday, a big cell came through and brought about 3.5 inches. That late cell out of the southwest hurt this area more than Isaac.
“It’s still awfully wet here. It’s necessary to run tracks on our combine to get the rice out. Now, we need some dry weather to finish getting the crops out and firm the ground up.”
Pierce believes his soybeans will be fine where they didn’t go underwater. “Of course, we’re especially worried about damage to those that were ready to cut.
“We still need to harvest around 2,000 acres of soybeans and about 300 acres of rice. It’s going to be a slow go with the rice because it’s so muddy. Some of the rice is down and twisted.”
Was Pierce pleased with the crops prior to Isaac?
“Absolutely. We were probably looking at the best soybean crop we’ve ever had. The dryland beans we’d cut were anywhere from 25 to 30 bushels per acre. Irrigated beans were at 40 to 50 bushels. We plant a lot of Group 4s.
“The early rice we cut before the storm was averaging around 170 bushels per acre. That’s really good for here.
“With these good yields, grain storage isn’t a problem for us because we operate our own elevator. But there have been some long lines at other facilities.”
Emergency response, damage tally
The full impact on Louisiana agriculture is yet to be tallied, says Mike Strain, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) Commissioner. “We’re doing reconnaissance, documenting the amount of crop damage.”
Kurt Guidry, LSU AgCenter agricultural economist, will help with the number crunching. “We’re still gathering information on damage to Louisiana agriculture. Some very rough, preliminary estimates – about $92 million in our major row crops -- have been put together. That figure is strictly an estimate for yield loss and doesn’t include things like increased production costs, quality issues we’ll see. It also doesn’t include livestock losses.
“Isaac went through our major sugarcane-growing areas. We know cane producers will be facing losses, cost of production impacts for the next planting.”
For an update on Louisiana’s cane crop post-Isaac, see here.
The parishes in the southeast, in terms of wind and rain amounts, were the hardest hit. Some experienced some storm surge and quite a bit of flooding.
“Right now, we’re working with our parish (Extension) offices,” says Guidry. “Agents, with production specialists, are going out and conducting physical assessments in the field. They’re providing us with reports.
“Hopefully, we’ll have more detailed numbers at the end of this week.”
Meanwhile, the LDAF is working a number of things simultaneously, including emergency operations.
“We’re still in the search, rescue and stabilization mode,” says Strain. “Yesterday (September 3), 195 head of cattle were brought out of Plaquemines Parish. Seventy head were pulled from debris fields and put on dry ground.
“We’ve flown two days of air missions where bales of hay were dropped from Blackhawk helicopters. The Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association members have provided hay and feed for emergencies.
“Right now, we’re doing salinity tests on water where cattle are stranded.
“Later, I’ll be looking at some of the areas where we grow produce. Tangipahoa Parish has some extensive damage.”
Proper prep, sheltering evacuees
Proper preparation has been key for dealing with Isaac’s aftermath, says Strain. “Hurricane Katrina set a new standard. Previously, it was Hurricane Betsy and Camille. More than half our organization is ICS (Incident Command System) trained. We have an ICS in the office here and I’m also a sitting member of the governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“We do a lot of emergency work and drills. So, the system has gotten better and continues to get better as we become more refined and honed in what we’re doing. We work very closely and have defined missions and roles. But we also overlap and integrate to deal with problems.
By now, Strain is a veteran with such storms. “Since I’ve been in office, we’ve dealt with Tropical Storm Faye, Hurricane Gustav, Ike and Isaac.”
For Fay, Gustav and Ike, there was almost $1 billion in losses to Louisiana agriculture. Those hit at peak harvest and devastated the entire state.
“Katrina caused heavy losses in the lower parishes,” says Strain. “The physical damages to infrastructure and homes were terrible with Katrina but the losses to agriculture weren’t as bad as with Fay, Gustav and Ike.
As for agricultural areas devastated by Isaac – where the storm remained on the coast for 18 to 20 hours – damage “is much worse than with the (earlier weather events),” says Strain. “Isaac just hung around in one spot with Category 1 winds and dropped 18 t0 20 inches of rain. We have a lot more debris fields, a lot more damage and a lot more loss of livestock.
“Initial reports are that sugarcane losses will be 15 to 20 percent at the center of the storm. Now, we have had good weather since and the cane is trying to stand back up. Farther away from the storm center, you’re looking at an estimated 10 percent in losses.”
Farther north in the state, “it just depends. Some areas got three inches of rain and wind gusts of 30 miles per hour. There will be lost cotton and soybeans.
“Isaac was so slow-moving. It brought in a lot of saltwater. Some of our orange groves – and we did salt testing yesterday – now have very high salt content.”
Strain says the state will ask the federal government for assistance – “probably on an ad hoc basis for each of the commodities and an indemnity program to deal with lost livestock.
“I want to thank everyone for their help during this. There has been tremendous response from so many people helping each other.”
One example of that help: the emergency shelter provided at the Dean Lee Research Station in Alexandria.
Boyd Padgett, LSU AgCenter regional director, hasn’t been out of the evacuation shelter much for the past 10 days. “We had a crowd -- around 2,000 evacuees were brought here. Many of them are leaving on buses today.
“We must have gotten close to five inches of rain. Considering what could have happened – and we got an incredible amount of rain and wind on Friday -- from what I’m told things are okay with our area crops.”