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Louisiana: hurricanes’ effects could last years

The Great Wall Street Collapse of 2008 will likely never be mentioned in the same breath with Gustav and Ike, the hurricanes that destroyed so much of Louisiana’s cotton crop in 2008.

In the latter, hard-working rural communities did everything the right way. They put their backs into their crops and worked all summer long, only to have their hard work destroyed almost overnight. In the former, a bunch of mortgage companies wrote billions in bad loans that led to the stock market collapse, then got paid by the government to throw themselves a pity party.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m watching an episode of “Where’s My Ethics, America?” instead of the news these days. Seems like America is continually losing sight of the simple, hard-work ethic that built this country, while favoring those who have trouble understanding the simple concept of cash flow.

The Lagniappe Gin in Hamburg, La., understands the concept all too well. The gin was built in 1991 and has operated faithfully every year since. The gin normally works between 12 employees and 15 employees and a half dozen truck drivers, and it has been recognized several times by Southern Cotton Ginners Association for its gin safety achievements. In the weeks before the hurricanes hit, the small town gin was expecting to process 10,000 bales to 12,000 bales of cotton.

Cotton growers around Hamburg, which is about halfway between Alexandria and Baton Rouge on Hwy. 1, had defoliated their cotton and were waiting on a few days of sunny weather to pick it. With high cottonseed prices, the gin was anticipating a good year and turning a nice profit. But this crop never saw the sun.

By the time Gustav and Ike were done, potential ginning production had dropped to about 1,400 bales. “There’s not a lot of cotton out there that is pickable,” said ginner Richard Vanlangendonck. “A lot of producers were waiting on insurance adjusters between the storms. But once Ike came through, for the majority of our producers, it wasn’t justifiable to pick what was left out there.”

Vanlangendonck gathered his employees around the office one morning and gave them the news. For the first time in 17 years, there would be no ginning season at Lagniappe Gin. That morning, everyone was laid off.

This scene is being repeated in other Louisiana communities this fall, as the region struggles to recover from hurricanes and other weather maladies. “We’re going to feel the effects of these hurricanes for a while to come,” said Vanlangendonck, who assured me that the gin “is going to make every effort” to be operational in 2009. “I don’t know if our producers are going to be able to struggle through this and be able to plant crops again next year. It’s going to be hard for everyone to get over it.

“We’ll have to see what the anticipated cotton acres are in late February and early March for 2009. We really need to see the market go up in order to buy back the cotton acres.”

The white collar crybabies of Wall Street may be getting all the national headlines these days, but the real calamity is what has happened in the cotton communities of Louisiana this fall. Cotton needs a comeback in the worst way.


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