Southwest Louisiana agriculture recovers slowly from Rita

Hurricane Rita roared into southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas on the evening of Friday, Sept. 23, 2005. The massive hurricane virtually destroyed any structures along the coastline and caused massive damage along its path as it moved north away from the coast.

The initial damage was followed by the storm surge that moved into the region after the storm. The surge affected large areas in Cameron, Iberia and Vermilion parishes and also inundated some areas of Calcasieu and Jeff Davis parishes.

The surge caused massive flooding and destroyed anything in its path, including homes, business, farm structures and farm equipment.

The surge waters also caused extensive losses for the area’s cattle producers. Thousands of head of cattle were lost to the floodwaters. Many that survived scattered far and wide with the destruction of fences.

Because many of farms in the region are surrounded by levees, water from the surge remained trapped, causing damage from salt accumulations. The only way to get rid of the saltwater was to pump the water out of impounded areas. In many cases it took several weeks of pumping.

The flooding had a profound effect on agriculture in rice-growing areas. Rice is a very salt-intolerant crop. Because of the high levels of salinity in many fields, rice could not be produced in 2006.

Also, much of the rice production in the area depends on surface water for irrigation. Many fields not flooded by the surge could not be planted because the surrounding surface water had high levels of salinity and could not be used for irrigation. While some of the acreage reduction might have occurred without the hurricane, most was due to unsuitable soil or water salinity.

In this three-parish area, rice acreage was down more than 62,000 acres. Some reduction would have occurred without the hurricane, but the vast majority was a direct result of the storm surge.

There has been some rainfall to help remediate these soils, but many still have high salt concentrations. How many acres will be available to plant next year is anyone’s guess. The total will be directly related to the amount of rainfall received in the area over the next few months.

I asked Andrew Granger and Gary Wicke (livestock Extension agents in Vermilion and Cameron parishes, respectively) for an update on the beef cattle situation in the impacted area.

Granger said cattle numbers are down 30 percent in Vermilion Parish because of death and forced sales — 38,000 cows before the storm and 27,000 today. In most areas, pastures are green and bermudagrass is predominant. Weed pressure is high, however.

He also said that approximately 60 percent of the perimeter fences have been replaced, but most cross fences have not.

He is optimistic for a rebound in cattle numbers, and he thinks that because of the long-term economic outlook, Vermilion Parish may eventually have more cattle than before Hurricane Rita.

In Cameron Parish, Wicke said, of the 25,000 cows before the storm, 9,000 were lost in the flooding and another 5,000 were displaced. At present, pastures are lush and abundant in bermudagrass. The fence rebuilding efforts have been slow but are progressing.

He said the loss of water control structures has exacerbated the mosquito problem, and some cattle that were returned to the parish had to be moved out because of the massive numbers of mosquitoes in many areas.

Wicke is optimistic that the long-term prospects for recovery of the cattle industry in the parish are good, but he believes it will be a struggle for the industry to fully rebound and return to pre-Rita numbers of cattle.

These were certainly not the only areas of agriculture impacted by the storm. There were problems for many sugarcane producers. Crawfish production was virtually non-existent in this area this year.

While there have been improvements in the year since Rita paid her visit, there is still a great deal of work to be done to return the area to the level of agricultural productivity that existed before the storm.

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