Hurricane Laura takes a toll on Louisiana agriculture

• By Bruce Schultz •

debris along fenceline

Derbis is pushed up against a fence near Intracoastal City, Louisiana — photos by Bruce Schultz, LSu AgCenter

Although definitive results won’t be available for a few days, the effects on agriculture appear to be less destructive than most people feared before Hurricane Laura struck, but forests and residences sustained significant damage.

Blair Hebert, LSU AgCenter agent for sugarcane in the Bayou Teche area, said cane plants have been blown down, or lodged, throughout the area, and some plants were submerged in floodwater.

Much of the cane appeared to be laying in one direction, which could make harvest somewhat less difficult, he said.

Farmers had not completed cane planting, and that process will be even more difficult because of wet fields and downed cane that will be used for seed.

Sugarcane harvest is expected to begin in mid-September for some mills, and all mills are scheduled to begin by early October. “It’s going to take longer to harvest and cost more money,” Hebert said.

The surge wasn’t as bad as expected, so fields to the north won’t be as affected by flooding. “It’s not the best-case scenario, but it’s not the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Hebert is concerned that fields affected by flooding will also be littered with debris. He recalled that farmers had to deal with butane bottles that were washed into the fields after previous hurricanes.

Farmer Ricky Gonsoulin, of New Iberia, said he has about 2,500 acres of sugarcane flooded. The tops of the cane stalks are split “so it’s going to take sugar to repair itself,” he said.

The flood was about 3 feet lower than the flooding that accompanied Hurricane Rita in 2005, and it doesn’t have the salinity of the tidal surge from that storm, Gonsoulin said. It took five to seven years for fields flooded by Rita to recover from the salt level.

The water level didn’t rise until 4 p.m. after the storm had passed, he said.

Gonsoulin is concerned about his newly planted cane that’s completely submerged. “Once it goes over the levee, it’s like a bathtub, and we’ve got to let it out,” he said of the floodwater. He has made cuts in levees and has pumps working to drain the water, “but the tides are working in our favor,” he said.

Errol Domingue, a farmer near Erath, has 800 acres of sugarcane where water has to be pumped off. But because the water was still above the levee, he has to wait for it to recede.

The sugarcane plants have been pushed over, but the tops don’t appear to be broken. “It’s down all one way, and not mangled up,” Domingue said.

“There’s still a great crop out there,” Gonsoulin said, adding that harvest will be more of a problem in fields that also have debris.

Todd Fontenot, AgCenter agent in Evangeline Parish, said damage is scattered in his area. “Pretty decent-sized trees are knocked down,” he said.

Most rice was already cut

Some rice that had not been harvested yet or was planted for crawfish showed little damage. “The rice around here seemed to have fared pretty well,” he said. Soybeans in the area didn’t appear to be damaged either.

“A lot of rice was cut over the weekend and up until Tuesday,” Fontenot said. One farmer, with help from neighbors, managed to harvest 350 acres of rice in one day.

Farmer Adlar Stelly of Kaplan  evacuated his family and returned to his home south of Kaplan to discover everything was ok except for 190 acres out of 2,000 acres of rice that he is unable to harvest.

“I thought I was coming back to a flooded house and every acre of my farm underwater,” he said.

The rice was flooded by freshwater, and Stelly expects to start pumping off the floodwater in a day or two.

He will be making freezer space available to nearby residents who, unlike him, don’t have power.

More than 90% of the rice in Acadia Parish had been harvested before the storm, said Jeremy Hebert, AgCenter agent in Acadia Parish. What rice was left in the field was knocked down and is under water.

“We’ve got great farmers, and they banded together and teamed up to help get as much rice out of the field as they could the week before the storm,” Hebert said.

Hebert’s parents’ home is a total loss. This is the second time they lose a home to a hurricane.

Andrew Granger, AgCenter agent in Vermilion Parish, said most of the rice still in fields is not under water. He doesn’t think the water pushed many fences over because it rose so slowly.

The water only reached 5 feet above normal at Intracoastal City.

Shrimp processing facilities at Intracoastal City had flooded, said AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture agent Mark Shirley. But water was receding, and the businesses were starting the cleanup process.

While agriculture damage wasn’t as significant as farmers feared, high winds uprooted trees, causing losses for forest landowners and residences.

Jimmy Meaux, AgCenter agent in Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes, said residential damage is extensive, including to his own home.

After returning from Pineville, Meaux found trees had fallen on his house, and the roof was partially ripped off.

“Everybody’s house is damaged,” he said. “The whole area in the LeBleu Settlement is like a war zone.”

Floodwater surrounds a seafood store in Delcambre.

Floodwater surrounds a seafood store in Delcambre, Louisiana.

Kyle LeBoeuf, cattle producer a cattle producer at Holmwood, had significant damage to his home. The roof on one side of his house was demolished and torn away, and a horse barn was destroyed.

His cattle behind his house were OK, but “I had some in Creole that got lost,” he said.

This is the second time LeBoeuf has had a house destroyed by a hurricane; the first was in Creole. “We lost everything” then, he said.

On Friday his family and friends were trying to get a water pump working and get an ice machine running.

LeBoeuf’s neighbor, Blake Trimeaux, said he rode out the storm in a nearby cinderblock building “where you could feel the cinderblocks breathing when the wind would blow. When the roof would go up, the doors would open, and you could feel the wall breathe,” he said.

Trimeaux said all his 25 cattle and home survived, but all his sheds are demolished.

AgCenter forestry agent Keith Hawkins in Beauregard Parish reported significant downed timber in the Deridder area. Many parish roads were inaccessible due to fallen trees, and some homes have been heavily damaged by downed trees.

Hurricane Laura had a major impact on forest landowners in southwest and central Louisiana, said AgCenter forestry agent Robbie Hutchins, located in Alexandria.

“Trees have been uprooted and snapped off from the hurricane and associated tornadoes,” Hutchins said. Forest landowners are in the process of assessing the extent of the damage. In addition, tens of thousands of shade trees near homes and business have been downed or damaged.

Bruce Schultz is assistant communications specialist at the LSU AgCenter. He may be reached at BSchultz@agcenter.lsu.edu