By Jill Nolin, CNHI State Reporter
ATLANTA – The damage to storm-ravaged fields in southwest Georgia in the wake of Hurricane Michael is nothing short of “catastrophic,” says Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.
The powerful storm entered Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane and ripped through the southwest corner of the state with punishing winds that thrashed homes, businesses and farms along the way.
State officials are still assessing the damage, but Black said Thursday afternoon that he expects the monetary losses for agriculture to rise into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Southwest Georgia, which bore the brunt of Michael’s wrath, is the heart of the state’s agriculture industry.
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“This is way beyond a disaster declaration,” Black said. “We’re in a territory that we’ve never been in. So it’s going to take a congressional appropriation. There’s not a program where this fits.”
Black said he had spoken Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue about the devastation and said he was encouraged by their commitment to assist in the recovery efforts.
“Our worst dreams, I believe, are being realized,” Black said. “It’s a very serious day for agriculture. This is going to have lingering effects on rural parts of our state for some time to come.”
For pecan growers, there couldn’t have been a worse time for a hurricane. The harvest had only just begun and the trees were heavy with nuts.
“It’s a mess. Pecan trees are down everywhere,” said Miley Adams, a Camilla farmer who experienced losses and who is also the vice president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association. “It is what it is. That’s part of what farming is all about – you take the bitter with the sweet.”
The area’s prized cotton crop also took a beating, with plants stripped nearly bare in the storm’s wake. Early estimates indicate that, at a minimum, about one-quarter of the harvest-ready crop could be gone. In some fields, it was impossible to tell where farmers stopped harvesting and the storm took care of the rest.
“We’ve got a pretty grim outlook,” said Richey Seaton, executive director of the Georgia Cotton Commission.
More than 80 poultry houses in south Georgia were also destroyed, although the birds lost likely would not even amount to a single day’s production in Georgia. About 5 million chickens are processed daily here.
Nearly 130 state routes were closed as of midday Thursday because of fallen trees and another 120 roads were strewn with debris – tallies that were expected to grow. Twenty hospitals and 15 nursing homes were relying on generators for power.
Gov. Nathan Deal said that the focus now is on damage assessment, debris removal and power restoration, with nearly a half million people in the dark as of midday Thursday. The governor urged patience.
“Past experience tells us that one of the greatest impediments to restoring power is people who get in the way of the power trucks and the crews who are working to make that happen,” Deal said. “Do not impede those who are trying to help you. They are working there very hard.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.