Louisiana farmers: Ike damage comparable to 2005’s Rita

Coastal residents assessing their damage from Hurricane Ike compared this storm with Hurricane Rita in 2005.

In Vermilion Parish, residents said the water rose much slower and was not as high. That wasn’t the case in Cameron Parish, where LSU AgCenter county agent Gary Wicke said the water was higher in some places, especially in Johnson’s Bayou, and the surge even reached the Lake Charles airport.

Flooding at the temporary LSU AgCenter Extension Office for Cameron Parish, located in the Grand Lake community, was inaccessible Monday, Sept. 15, but Wicke expected the water to recede enough to allow his staff to return by Wednesday, Sept. 17.

Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, and research associate Kim Landry measured salt levels Sept. 15 in standing water in Cameron and lower Jefferson Davis parishes, finding high levels of saltwater. “A lot of it went off the scale,” Saichuk said.

It’s difficult to say now if Ike brought more saltwater inland than Rita, he said, but the effect may be diminished this time.

“When Rita came in, there was a drought, so the land and the ditches soaked up the water,” he said. “But in this case, we had a lot of rain before the storm.”

Saichuk said he saw several rice fields where the second crop would be lost from saltwater.

Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, and Howard Cormier, retired LSU AgCenter county agent, surveyed the east end of Vermilion Parish and found salt levels as high as 13,500 parts per million at the Frances and David LaCour farm south of Mouton Cove and 2,000 ppm east of Abbeville. Cormier said the average level was approximately 9,000 ppm.

Many areas of the town of Erath were flooded, and salinity levels exceeded 9,000 ppm.

Cormier said the storm surge from Ike didn’t appear to have the destructive force that Rita brought to Vermilion Parish, and Gauthier said the fact that most fences are still standing after Ike supports that idea.

Cattle and sugarcane farmer Sam Duplantis said he has been struggling to get hay to his cattle. “All the pastures are full of salt,” he said.

Duplantis’ home flooded with Rita, but not this time, so he brought dehumidifiers to help dry out the residence of farmer Jimmy Domingue.

Domingue said he had only a few inches of water in his home, compared to 3 feet with Rita. But Domingue said hurricanes Gustav and Ike will hurt his sugarcane crop. “The last storm (Gustav) leaned it this way, and this one (Ike) turned it over,” he said.

Domingue said many of the cane plants suffered broken tops, and that can affect sugar yields by as much as 30 percent to 40 percent.

Norma and Tommy Romero were cleaning out their flooded home Sept. 15 with help from a crew of friends and neighbors at the boat landing on Boston Canal. The flood water didn’t get as high as Rita, but that’s little consolation with a mess of muddy goo that covered everything.

“We had 4 feet of water this time and 5.5 the last time,” Norma Romero said.

For rice farmer David LaCour, the storm flooded his bins filled with this year’s crop, just as it did with Hurricane Rita, but the water was not as high this time.

A neighbor provided a large generator to help power fans to dry out the crop in the bins. The soaked rice will have to be removed, but LaCour said the process won’t be as difficult after the experience he gained from Rita.

“I know exactly what to do this time,” he said. He will use large fans to draw the moisture out from the bottom of the bins.

LaCour has been dealing with the worry about the possibility of storms for weeks now. “We’ve been having this threat since Aug. 15,” he said.

He doubts he’ll be able to plant a crop next year because fields were flooded with saltwater.

“I’ve probably lost my crawfish crop,” LaCour said.

State Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain told a group of farmers Sept. 15 he will meet with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer this week to stress the needs of Louisiana farmers. Bill Richardson, LSU AgCenter chancellor, will be at that meeting along with Ronnie Anderson, state president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau.

“We’ve asked for the entire state to be declared a natural disaster for agriculture,” Strain said.

Strain said efforts are being made to get fuel to pump water off low-lying areas. He said military transport planes will begin flying mosquito control missions starting Sept. 17. “They will be here for 15 days,” he said.

Farmer Glenn Ray Trahan of Gueydan said mosquitoes are taking their toll on cattle, causing mortality in some cases.

Farmer Johnny Boudreaux of Perry said flooded pastures will be hurt by lingering salt contamination that will interfere with forage growth. A military helicopter from Meridian, Miss., is being used to haul hay to stranded cattle.

Farmers told Strain that a buffer needs to be built to protect the coastal area from storm surge, and Strain agreed.

Farmer Dane Hebert of Maurice said studies have been done to show the need for a storm surge barrier. “It’s time now to act,” he said.

Andrew Granger, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said incentives are needed to help cattle owners with the expense of moving cattle out of harm’s way. He said parish cattle producers moved a total of 4,000 head to higher ground ahead of the storm with no government assistance. But many cattle owners who lost cattle in Hurricane Rita were compensated with $800 for each animal.

“We feel like we’re being treated by the government like second-class citizens,” said farmer Hank Moss.

Moss said he’s discouraging his son from becoming a fifth generation farmer. He said many farmers are likely to give up their livelihoods because of the storms.

“A lot of them haven’t recovered from Rita, and it’s going to take a lot out of the game,” Moss said.

State Rep. Simone Champagne of Jeanerette said coastal residents are weary from dealing with hurricane damage. “These people can’t go through this anymore,” she said. “They have done it twice in three years.”

Ted Girouard, Vermilion Parish Farm Bureau chairman, said the damage to the agricultural community is far-reaching. “It’s heartbreaking to hear and see the losses,” he said.

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