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Hurricanes take bite out of Louisiana coastline

Hurricanes aren’t only impacting Louisiana row-crops and infrastructure. They’re also eating the coastline at a rapid rate.

As a child, south Louisiana sugarcane farmer Dickie Ellender remembers asking his grandfather one of his earliest memories. “He told me a story about when he was a kid and a stubborn dog wanted to go on a boat ride with the family to the barrier islands,” Ellender recently recounted at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on hurricane devastation.

“On one occasion, they loaded up everything except the dog and sailed down to the coast, about 30 or 40 miles away. The dog trotted down the side of the bayou all the way to the coast with them and forded a few streams. But he made it to the island.”

Today, that dog “would have to swim across 30 miles of open water to get to the same location (due to coastal erosion) problems we’re having. Gone are some of the barrier islands and wetlands that served as a natural buffer from the worst storms (out of) the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re losing coastal wetlands at a rate of 40 square miles each year. Some experts predict the shoreline may move inland over 30 miles in the next 30 years. I hope this gives you some perspective of the breadth and long-term problems our communities are facing when you look to the South.

“The ominous power of the sea when it surges 20 to 30 miles inland is something to behold.”

The eye of Hurricane Ike “stayed to our south as it moved into Texas. But that meant the counter-clockwise winds drove a sea surge deep into Louisiana’s cane belt in a manner eerily familiar to those who experienced Hurricane Rita in 2005.”

However, in some areas, the damage was “worse than Rita.” Levees in some parishes “were topped and standing water remains to this day.

“As a general rule we keep a field in production using existing root systems for three years. After harvesting the third crop, the ground is left fallow for nearly a year. This generally occurs in August and September.”

But frequent late-summer rains and then hurricanes “left us behind in our planting” of new cane. That may sound like good news. “But the delay in planting increases our risks of not being able to plant those fields before winter.

“The delay also has the potential of pushing harvest deeper into winter when freeze damage can destroy whatever cane is left in the field.”

Ellender, who farms with his brother, says they’ll be forced “to use more acres of our mature crop as a seed-crop for our fallow ground. In my case, that means I’ll use 260 total acres to plant the 800 acres necessary for my farm. Typically, I use only 160 acres. This means I’ll have 100 acres that won’t go to the processor.”

In explaining the need for disaster assistance, Ellender pointed out that Louisiana “has been growing sugarcane commercially for well over 200 years. It has received agricultural disaster assistance twice in over 200 years.

“The fact that both these assistance packages were made necessary by intense hurricanes in this decade is a direct result of rampant coastal erosion. Unless we invest in energetic coastal erosion (control) efforts soon, my farm may be beachfront property in a few short years. Then, it will slip quietly beneath the waves.”

To read Ellender’s comments on crop insurance see

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