(08/16/23) ALEXANDRIA, La. — Three years after a tornado and two hurricanes ripped through central Louisiana, the LSU AgCenter is making progress on rebuilding facilities in the region that play key roles in its research and education efforts.
Repairs have been completed at the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center campgrounds near Pollock, which suffered extensive damage from hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020. About 30 miles south at the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center outside Alexandria, the first wave of reconstruction of buildings destroyed in an April 2020 tornado is now underway.
“These projects are a major win for our area and our state,” said Daniel Stephenson, director of the AgCenter Central Region.
Louisiana 4-H youth have spent summers at Camp Grant Walker for a century. And at Dean Lee, where Stephenson works as a weed scientist and serves as research coordinator, faculty study production strategies for major row crops and livestock, providing valuable information to farmers and ranchers across the state.
Several facilities at the Dean Lee complex, which sits adjacent to the LSU Alexandria campus, were lost to the tornado. A rebuilt equipment storage barn is close to being finished, and just this week, work began on replacing a greenhouse for research projects.
Crews are currently raising the metal frame for a new DeWitt Livestock Show Facility, the previous version of which was a popular site for 4-H functions, producer meetings and other events. Workers are almost done with repairs to the State Evacuation Shelter next door.
“The evac shelter is the primary point where, in the event of a natural disaster, we move people. Having that building sound and able to house people is critical. And when a natural disaster is declared by the governor, the DeWitt facility is used as an animal shelter,” Stephenson said. “These projects are important not just to our ag constituency but to all of the state.”
A second phase of reconstruction will bring back a foundation seed building with offices, laboratories and enclosed storage space for seed along with four equipment storage sheds.
“Since April 2020, our equipment has been sleeping outside and has been exposed to the environment, so this is a boon for us,” Stephenson said. “Not just me but all of the guys on the farm are excited we will have a place to store our equipment again.”
At Camp Grant Walker, staff recently wrapped up the 2023 summer camping season. More than 3,000 campers in fourth through sixth grades, junior counselors and adult volunteers participated.
“This was our first summer at full capacity with being able to use all of our facilities since 2019, so that was very exciting,” said camp director Christine Bergeron.
She had to cancel summer camp in 2020 because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Then in August of that year, Hurricane Laura ravaged southwest and central Louisiana.
“We had so many trees down,” Bergeron said, recalling toppled pines littering the ground at every turn of the 90-acre site. A few trees landed on structures, crushing a bunkhouse, two log cabins, two outdoor pavilions and part of the arts and crafts building.
Weeks later in October, heavy rains from Hurricane Delta flooded several other camp buildings. An ice storm in February 2021 would cause further tree damage.
Although some buildings were still unusable, camp reopened at reduced capacity last summer, just in time for the facility’s 100th anniversary. With all repairs completed in recent months, Camp Grant Walker — which during the off season is rented out for events such as weddings, retreats and corporate and state agency meetings — is finally getting back to normal this year.
Restoring the campgrounds was crucial to continuing a longstanding 4-H tradition, Bergeron said, which aims to instill an appreciation for the outdoors in campers.
With activities teaching about STEM, Louisiana wetlands and hunter safety as well as outdoor recreational activities such as canoeing, kayaking and archery, 4-H camp is unique among the many summer programs offered nowadays.
“They spend 90% of their time outdoors,” Bergeron said. “That’s so important for these kids to spend time outdoors and unplug from electronic devices.”
Work is underway to reconstruct the DeWitt Livestock Show Facility at the LSU AgCenter Dean Lee Research and Extension Center near Alexandria. The facility was destroyed in an April 2020 tornado. Photo by Daniel Stephenson/LSU AgCenter
Tractors and other pieces of farm equipment at the LSU AgCenter Dean Lee Research and Extension Center near Alexandria. Many of the center’s storage areas for equipment were damaged in an April 2020 tornado. One storage barn is nearing completion, and more will be rebuilt later. Photo by Daniel Stephenson/LSU AgCenter
An equipment storage shed lies in shambles at the LSU AgCenter Dean Lee Research and Extension Center following an April 2020 tornado. LSU AgCenter file photo
A tree smashed into a bunkhouse at the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center during Hurricane Laura in 2020. Repairs to camp buildings damaged in the storm were recently completed. Photo by Christine Bergeron/LSU AgCenter
An uprooted pine tree lies on the ground at the Grant Walker 4-H Educational Center after Hurricane Laura in 2020. Photo by Christine Bergeron/LSU AgCenter