Two historical events happened this past summer when two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, within two weeks of each other made landfall on U.S. crops and a third hurricane, Maria, broadsided U.S. Territory Puerto Rico. All caused incalculable damage to crops in southeast Texas, south Florida extending up the west coast and throughout Puerto Rico. How did this affect ag operators in each region?
August 25, 2017 Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the middle Texas coast at Rockport, about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi. As it moved inland with winds peaking at 132 mph near Port Aransas, it downgraded to a tropical storm. Many weather observing stations in South Texas with equipment for measuring wind was disabled before the highest wind speeds could be recorded. Thus, some of the observed wind speeds tallied over South Texas may be underestimated, especially over areas near the coast and close to the eyewall of Harvey.
But, Harvey’s main crop damaging effect was flooding. Fortunately, most of the cotton crop in the Corpus Christi area had been gathered. However, further north toward Houston that all changed with later planted and different crops. A historical record 51.88 inches of rainfall was recorded at Highlands, Texas (20 miles east of Houston), breaking the rainfall record for the continental U.S. Crop damage estimates by the South Texas Cotton and Grain Association exceeded $150 million. Worse than crop damage, as of September 14, the Washington Post reported 82 deaths from the effects of Hurricane Harvey.
Andy Mitchell at M&M Air Service in Beaumont, Texas — We lost five aircraft; four AT-602s and a Cessna C-182. Jerry Leger’s Twin County Air Ag in Winnie, Texas lost four AT-402s. We got over six feet of water in the hangar (see photos). We are estimating about $2 million in damages, thus far for us.
Our insurance has already paid for the aircraft. We replaced the four AT-602s with three AT-802s. Our hangar was hit hard, as was our office. We lost all our parts inventory and typical shop tools. We had to salvage our loader trucks, since they had no comprehensive insurance coverage. We have already got a couple of the trucks back going. We ended up with about six feet of water in the hangar. We couldn’t get into the office and hangar for over six days and still then only by boat. An official recorded 47.35 inches of rain fell in the Beaumont area.
Hardly two weeks later, after swamping the Florida Keys, on Sunday September 10, 2017 Hurricane Irma, now downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane, made its second landfall at 3:35 pm on Marco Island just south of Naples, Florida on Florida’s western Gulf Coast. According to the National Hurricane Center, Irma’s landfall winds were reported near 120 mph.
South Florida residents had been warned Irma would take an easterly course traveling up Florida’s east coast. However, at the last minute and often too late for a change in evasive action, Irma decided the west coast was better to her liking, catching many off guard.
According to the “Florida Grower News”, only about 25% of the South Florida vegetable crop had been planted, limiting the overall effect of Irma on vegetable farmers, but devastating the crops that were planted.
Early estimates claimed by the USDA were put at $150 million (15%) in citrus losses. However, citrus growers and industry leaders say at least $750 million were lost. Many orchards were still standing in water when the USDA released its estimate and fruit was still falling from trees.
Jesse Lee and Bart Perryman at Aerial Crop Protection in Belle Glade, Florida — We were faced with making a decision about where to relocate our two AT-502Bs on Thursday before Irma arrived on Sunday. We needed to decide in time for our pilots and crews to take care of their personal affairs before the storm hit. At the time of our decision, Irma was forecasted to make landfall around Miami and travel north-northwest along the east coast of Florida.
Based on this information, Aerial Crop Protection moved its aircraft to Wauchula, Florida which is closer to the West Coast and northwest of our home base in Belle Glade. Friday, the forecast track for Irma was moved to the west coast of Florida. Due to bad weather, we were not able to relocate the aircraft.
We anchored the aircraft on an asphalt ramp at the local airport. When Irma changed directions, it was headed directly toward our aircraft. One of the aircraft broke loose from the tie downs due to the wing’s tie down bolts eye bolts breaking. The aircraft suffered substantial damage to the right wingtip, which required onsite repairs to able to ferry to Southeastern Aircraft Sales in Fort Pierce for final repairs. The aircraft has been out of service for five weeks.
As far as crop damage, our vegetable crop season had not been planted at the time. However, there have been major delays in land prep and planting due to flooding and it has rained almost every day since Irma. We were unable to fly for 10 days due to too much water in the fields.
Rick Stone of Southeastern Aircraft Sales in Fort Pierce, Florida — The Florida Commissioner of Agriculture has estimated a total loss to Florida agriculture to be around $2.5 billion. Citrus was devastated, as most of the fruit that was ready to harvest blew off the trees. We have increased some spraying of nutritional and fungicide to help save what little fruit that remains and to help the trees recover from the stress of flooding and high winds. Mosquito control applications has picked up a bit, too. Most of the airplanes in South Florida survived Irma knowing of only two damaged.
I’m not sure of the rainfall amount, but we had about 24 inches here at Southeastern Aircraft’s airport and in the groves some growers were reporting as much as three to four feet of water.
The only wind damage we had, other than the uprooting of citrus trees, were mostly pine and oak tree damage. The winds were around 100 mph sustained with gusts a bit higher. This was reported by the Saint Lucie nuclear power plant. Our power was out for about seven days.
I have heard of fresh vegetable and sugarcane damage, but not sure to what extent since the sugarcane can still be harvested, even after being blown over. I’m certain most of the vegetables that were planted were flooded.
Jeff Summersill of Thomas R. Summersill, Inc. in Geneva, Florida — We had a very eventful Hurricane Irma. The eyewall came across our home and stayed for close to four hours. Gusts in our area were up to 137 mph. Our home had minor damage and 10 days without power, but no family members or neighbors were hurt. I think we had 10 to 12 inches of rain; and since then, we have had just as much or more rain on top of it.
Irma hit opening day for planting crops such as corn and leafy green vegetables, etc.. Those crops are behind and some lost due to delayed planting schedules. Sugarcane was whipped around for almost a whole day and you can expect that to affect yield. Possibly, the worst crop affected is citrus. There are areas with 85% fruit drop and a wide spread area of 50% or more. We lost many acres of spraying because of Irma, although we picked up some emergency applications to help the citrus.
Our equipment is another story. We have three aircraft; two were put in hangers and one was tied down on an auxiliary runway. Forecasts were for Irma to hit the east coast of Florida. So, we moved that airplane to the west coast for tie down. Forecasters were wrong and by the time Irma was moving to the west coast, it was too late to relocate the aircraft. Seemingly, we drew a straight line for Irma to follow. Its eye went over all three airplanes spread out over almost 100 miles. The first one was the worst, since it was outside. 140 mph winds pulled the tie down out of the ground and broke off the tie down ring causing the airplane to roll back in a canal. Sounds worse than it was and looked worse at first. Rick Stone from Southeastern Aircraft sent help to inspect it. Other than the spray system, it has minor damage and is being repaired onsite.
Our second aircraft, about 60 miles away, was in a hangar that was fine. However, the third aircraft was in a hangar that structurally failed, but did not hurt the airplane. It took about a week to get it out. I’m very thankful that our workmates were not hurt from the storm or cleanup. Our Florida association is very grateful to have a group that is ready and willing to help one another in an event like this. We are getting back to normal, but not one season for the last 20 years has been like this one. We will figure it out and go on for the next 20 years.
Although Irma skirted the north side of Puerto Rico, it still caused extensive damage. But that was nothing compared to the damage yielded by Category 4 Maria’s direct hit two weeks later on the morning of Wednesday Sept 20 with 140 mph winds. Thankfully, Maria turned north and missed the U.S.
Jason Blanke, contract operator for RiceTec in Lajas, Puerto Rico —
It would be hard to describe the effects of Maria. I was in the planning stages to ferry my aircraft to Puerto Rico from Missouri when Irma struck. I had to delay. As soon as Irma cleared out, Maria was headed straight for Puerto Rico. Once again we had to delay the trip. After Maria hit, it took several days to contact anyone there. Telephone and power networks were completely destroyed.
I am in Puerto Rico now and there is significant damage. Luckily, the seed rice operation I contract with is on the extreme southwest side of Puerto Rico. It was spared the major damage experienced on the northeast side. The research/seed station at Lajas sustained minimal damage.
In one sense, it was lucky for me that these hurricanes delayed my arrival at Puerto Rico, since my airplane was in the shop with nagging maintenance issues. Power is still out at my Puerto Rico residence and in the local area, but it is expected to back on within a week. Fortunately for me, I have water. Communications are coming back little day by day. We’re all eager to get the rice crop planted and back to spraying and fertilizing.
Harvey reentered the Gulf of Mexico to make landfall a second time at Cameron, LA as a tropical storm turning north and sparing most of Louisiana as compared to Texas. Although, extensive flooding of southern Louisiana from the Texas border to as far east as Iowa, LA along I-10.