Editorial: LSU AgCenter Responds Heroically to Hurricane Disasters

Linda Benedict  |  1/5/2006 4:07:00 AM

Rusty Gaude’s father died August 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina struck. The next day Gaude, an LSU AgCenter fisheries agent and resident of New Orleans, had to leave his father’s remains at a funeral home in Folsom and evacuate, not knowing what was going to happen.

Gaude was back in Louisiana three days later, and he and his brothers buried their father with a plan to hold a proper funeral whenever possible. (It was – six weeks later.)

But despite all of this going on in his personal life, Gaude was back at work the day after he buried his father, helping his fellow workers and clientele in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, two of the hardest hit by Katrina.

One of the more challenging projects Gaude is working on is getting a marine lift to the fishermen in the two parishes so they can get their stranded boats off land and back into the water where they can be made ready for fishing.

“We have a network with the other Sea Grant people around the country,” Gaude said, speaking of the federally funded program in U.S. coastal states. In Louisiana, the LSU AgCenter partners with Sea Grant, and Gaude has a joint appointment.

This is just one of many stories of AgCenter employees who despite personal loss were back on the job quicker than you can say coastal restoration.

“They said they wanted to get back to work,” said LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson. That was the overwhelming response he received from employees displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For a while he was worried about finding all of them.

“It took nearly 1 0 days (after Katrina), but we accounted for everyone,” he said gratefully. The AgCenter has about 1 ,500 employees around the state including nearly 1 60 in the Katrina-affected area. None had been injured but several had lost homes and everything they owned.

“I don’t have a house. I’m thankful I have a job,” Carol Jacobsen, secretary in the St. Bernard extension office, told a group gathered at Knapp Hall on September 1 6, as she held back tears. The group included about 40 displaced AgCenter employees and AgCenter administrators there to talk about the next steps.

Ramona Gentry’s home in Port Sulphur was washed off its foundation. A Plaquemines Parish extension agent, she now lives in a FEMA trailer next to the extension office, her days and nights filled with the disaster recovery effort.

“We have our administrators to thank for getting those trailers so fast,” said Mark Schexnayder, a fisheries agent in Jefferson and Orleans parishes who heads the AgCenter’s Katrina Recovery Task Force. “Others are still waiting.”

Schexnayder, whose home in Metairie miraculously suffered only wind damage and no flood damage, praises the response of AgCenter administrators to the crisis.

“They were there for us. It made all the difference in the world,” he said.

The LSU AgCenter’s Katrina response was fast and thorough. Employee safety was top priority.

The chancellor was back at work early on August 30 and had called in the two vice chancellors, David Boethel and Paul Coreil, and several of his staff. He kept his office open to answer calls throughout that next weekend, which included the Labor Day holiday.
Communication was a problem those first few weeks with both phone and cell phone service knocked out in certain areas.

“It was frustrating trying to find out what was happening,” Boethel said. In addition to many other crisis-related tasks, Boethel handled requests to use AgCenter property for staging efforts for relief workers and for housing and offices for faculty and students from other LSU schools and U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans who had been displaced by the storms.

As vice chancellor for research and director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, he was especially worried about the people, animals, buildings and projects at the research stations.

The Citrus Research Station, which sits near the levee north of Port Sulphur, is the closest to the Gulf of Mexico. And it got a lot closer as the ocean surge reached just south of Port Sulphur.

One of the research assistants at the Citrus Station, Joe Alexis Jr., nearly lost his life trying to check on the station the day after Katrina hit. As he neared the levee in his pickup truck, the water started coming over.

“It looked like Niagara Falls,” he said. It came so fast his truck was swept up by the current. He managed to climb out and grab hold of a tree, where he clung for about an hour along with some desperate snakes. He then swam to safety at his parents’ house not too far away.

The Citrus Station suffered major damage – more than $2 million – including destruction of citrus, Formosan subterranean termite and vegetable production research projects.

“We had also planted black mangroves to address coastal erosion and restoration,” Boethel said.

The Southeast Station in Franklinton, where the state’s dairy production research is conducted, had 220 cows to be milked, storm or no storm.

Mike McCormick, station director, hurriedly collected enough data the day before Katrina hit, Sunday, to finish one research project. But by Monday, it was down to him, Doug McKean and Justin Jones to feed and milk all 420 animals. The rest of the staff, including the eight who do the twice-a-day milking, had evacuated.

All dairies have generators for emergencies, because it takes electricity to milk cows. But the critical need they all faced, including the Southeast Station, was diesel fuel to operate the generators.

“Next time a storm even enters the Gulf, no matter where it’s headed, I’m going to make sure my diesel tanks are full,” McCormick said.

Not wanting to take away fuel from the commercial operations, McCormick turned to the other AgCenter research stations to provide fuel when his ran out, and they did. On Thursday, Pat Bollich, director of the Central Research Station in Baton Rouge showed up not only with fuel but with three generators and eight helpers, who cut trees off fences, fixed equipment and re-wired to keep the generators going.

Meanwhile, Aubrey Posey, Ronnie Bardwell and other AgCenter agents, worked round-the-clock finding and getting fuel to distraught dairy farmers.

All over the state, AgCenter people stepped up to serve as demand dictated. For example, Jane Jones, the director of the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center near Pollock, ran a Red Cross shelter there for evacuees, primarily from St. Bernard Parish. She heroically rallied volunteer support from the local community. At its peak, she saw to the care of nearly 600 people.

“The Red Cross told us this was one of the best-run shelters in the state,” said Coreil, who is the vice chancellor for extension and director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service.

Linda Hooper-Bui took time from her fire ant research to organize the first set of volunteers for the rapidly put-together pet shelter at Parker Coliseum. Shannon Bere, who coordinates the AgCenter’s livestock shows, and her crew worked day and night to transform the coliseum from a large animal facility to one that could handle dogs and cats.

“And some pet ferrets, birds and a few pet snakes,” Bere said.

Another AgCenter crew – Royce Fontenot, Jeremy Birch and Jay Grymes – set up a portable weather station at the New Orleans airport on September 3 to provide data for several days for the control tower.

“The airport was without reliable direct weather data because some of the equipment was out of commission,” Coreil said. “Thousands of people who flew in and out of that airport those few days, including President Bush, benefited from the AgCenter weather data.”

Then, the unthinkable happened. Another Category 5 hurricane, Rita, came along on September 26 and flattened and flooded the other half of South Louisiana.

And again the AgCenter response was swift and selfless. For example, Andrew Granger, Vermilion Parish agent, pitched in to save cows and distribute donated feed to cattle producers in his area. By night, he had to deal with his own flooded home and his own cattle, also stranded by the storm surge that engulfed pastures.

Right after Rita, just as they did after Katrina, AgCenter people provided aid to victims, met with local governmental bodies and networked with colleagues all over the country to bring much-needed relief to Louisiana.

If there is anything good that can come from this tragedy, it is that the LSU AgCenter is getting more recognition from the media, including the national media, as a valuable source of practical, research-based information. Our people continue to appear regularly in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for example. Housing specialist Claudette Reichel has been quoted frequently on how to clean mold. Economist Kurt Guidry is recognized as the authority on dollar losses to agriculture. County agent Howard Cormier told the world in an interview on MSNBC about the devastation Rita did to rice farmers.

Every AgCenter employee pitched in, even if spared the storms’ direct wrath. They developed educational materials to distribute to evacuees. They assisted at shelters. And they grieved, whether they want to admit it or not, for a New Orleans, a Louisiana, an LSU AgCenter that will never be the same again.

No one knows what the future will bring. New programs are likely to emerge as we continue with our vital coastal restoration research, our research to add value to agricultural products, our efforts to assist biotechnology start-up companies, and our LaHouse program, dedicated to building better housing in the state.

But everyone knows it will most likely get worse before it gets better.

“The residual impact will result in streamlining of budgets,” Richardson said.

But one thing’s for sure. The LSU AgCenter’s mission will stay the same. We’re here to serve the people of Louisiana. It’s more than a job. It’s a way of life.

Linda Foster Benedict

(This article appeared in the fall 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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