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HURRICANE WATCH: Lili weakens as she comes ashore

“We were incredibly pleased with the way it came in,” says Jay Grymes, state climatologist with the LSU Climate Center. “Early this morning, Lili was a Category 4 hurricane but Mother Nature took the juice out of it before it came ashore. Lili still ended up strong, but it’s dropped to a Category 1,”

As she moved inland, Lili was steadily weakening and moving on a nearly northern track. Grymes looks for the storm to take a hook to the north-northeast later today.

Lili arrives on the heels of Isidore, which hit Delta states a few days ago. But Isidore came in and shot across Lake Ponchartrain and then traveled into Mississippi. If you think of Louisiana as a boot, Isidore traveled across the toes. Lili came in at the ankle and will run up the leg towards Arkansas.

By the time she gets to northern Louisiana and into Arkansas and Mississippi, Lili will still be a “rainmaker,” says Grymes. He suspects there will be at least “a couple of inches” of rain for the Delta to deal with. There will still be winds associated with the storm’s core but the potential area of damage will be greatly collapsed.

How about damage to Louisiana’s southern half?

“So far, because Lili lost her punch while still over the water, we haven’t seen anything near the wind, rain or surge flooding we were worried about. Now, the parishes of Vermillion, St. Mary and Iberia are taking a serious walloping. They’re still taking hurricane force winds.”

But the wind speeds are “way down” from what was expected. At midnight, Grymes and associates were waiting for Lili’s winds to hit the coast with wind speeds of 140 miles per hour. Instead, winds came in below 100 miles per hour.

“When you start talking about those kinds of wind speeds, the damage is exponential. So, while we’re looking at some moderate surge levels – up to 8 feet in some places – we’re not looking at anything like what was expected as little as six hours ago.”

The Lili bullet-dodge is even more impressive than the Isidore dodge, says Grymes.

“Isidore never grew up into what she could have become. Lili grew into what would have ranked at the second or third most powerful storm to have hit Louisiana and then regressed into a – if there is such a thing – run-of-the-mill hurricane. This one would have been as impressive or more impressive than Betsy.”

Grymes is currently working out of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness.

“We serve as weather monitors for the state. We don’t get in the way of the National Weather Service, but provide local insight. The national hurricane center is in Florida and they’re unlikely to know (exact local geography) or things like small state roads. We provide local expertise and interpretation. We’ve been on 24-hour alert since Tuesday morning and we’re all a bit tired.

“Now, we’re in a stand-by mode. That means we’re waiting for the storm to move inland a bit, start to wind down. We then will do an update for the FEMA field team to give them an idea of where to look for the worst damage.”

Hurricane Lili could cause major problems for Arkansas farmers, according to specialists with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

The hurricane is expected to dump considerable rain on the state's cotton, rice and soybean crops and pound them with high winds.

The hurricane is hitting at a critical time for Arkansas row crops. They're all in the process of being harvested.

"I think we've got a lot more at stake than the other crops," says Bill Robertson, extension cotton specialist. He said only about 10 percent of the state's 930,000-acre cotton crop has been harvested, much less than cotton and rice.

He predicted yield losses and quality problems.

"The crop is very much at risk," he said. Most of the crop has been defoliated in preparation for picking, so there are no leaves on the plants to help deflect rain off the bolls.

He said moisture when bolls are beginning to open can combine with sugars in the bolls to cause a condition called hardlock, which prevents the lint from fluffing out.

If the bolls are already open, heavy rain can pull lint out of the boll and cause it to fall on the ground.

Arkansas farmers are usually farther along in picking, but the recent rains have slowed them. Mississippi County farmers have just now been able to get back into fields to begin picking again after the last hurricane, Robertson noted.

Robertson said one Desha County farmer told him he lost 10 percent of his yield potential after the last hurricane. "It's like a 10 percent cut in your pay."

Meanwhile, farmers were in the fields Wednesday working fast and furiously to pick as much cotton as they can before the rains begin.

Robertson said the USDA has estimated the statewide average yield will be 841 pounds per acre, "which is an excellent crop. I don't want it to slip away from us at the end."

Chuck Wilson, extension rice specialist, said 70 percent of the state's 1.5 million-acre rice crop has been harvested. Rain and wind can cause severe yield losses to the 30 percent of the crop left in the field.

Wilson said wind will undoubtedly cause a lot of plants to lodge, or fall over, making harvest more difficult and time consuming. This can also cause more wear and tear on equipment.

The rain could cause the rice to begin sprouting, which would ruin it for milling.

"I guarantee you that the combines are going as fast as they can right now before the storm hits," Wilson said Wednesday.

Dwayne Beaty, area extension soybean agronomist, said the hurricane could be a serious threat to the 70 percent of the state's 2.9 million-acre soybean crop still in the field. He said rain and wind could cause serious lodging and quality problems.

He said the last hurricane that hit Louisiana didn't cause any real damage to the Arkansas soybean crop, but "we could be in a lot of trouble" from the latest hurricane.

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