ABBEVILLE – Cattle, rice, sugarcane, crawfish, wildlife and alligators are among many of Hurricane Rita's casualties in southwestern Louisiana.
Howard Cormier, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said tidal surge in Vermilion Parish flooded numerous grain bins filled with rice.
"The rice at the bottom is going to spoil," Cormier said of the outlook.
Although experts aren’t sure whether it’s possible to salvage some of the rice, LSU AgCenter rice specialist Dr. Johnny Saichuk said a grain drying expert in Arkansas has advised separating the wet and dry rice – if that’s possible.
"Any rice that got wet will spoil," Saichuk said.
Mark Detraz of Perry said he drove south Saturday morning to inspect a water control structure, and he saw the surge.
"It was literally coming down the road," Detraz said.
He estimates he rounded up 4,000 small alligators from a farm where they escaped.
Detraz also said he has spent several hours flying his airplane across Vermilion Parish and touring the damage by airboat. Dead deer can be found throughout the woods, he said.
Sugarcane fields also are covered by mats of debris from the marsh, Detraz said.
"How are they going to harvest that?" he asked.
Detraz estimated an 8-foot tidal surge washed across the marsh, but it was slowed by a wooded area north of Intracoastal City before coming as far north as his home.
"They were launching center console boats here behind the house," he said.
Crewboats, pleasure craft and shrimp boats have been washed onto land at Intracoastal City, he said.
Adding to the problems for agriculture and natural resources, at least one farmer’s grain bins were flooded with oil leaking from a tank, Detraz said.
In a neighbor’s house, bluefish and spadefish, usually found offshore, were swimming in the living room, he said, and bull redfish were swimming through the yard.
Dr. Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension, got an aerial view Tuesday of Cameron Parish, where he was a county agent for 14 years.
"The devastation is as far as you can see," Coreil said. "It looks like a nuclear holocaust out there."
Almost all the houses in Cameron and Grand Chenier are gone – with only a slab left in many cases, he said, but the LSU AgCenter’s extension office for Cameron Parish, which is located next to the parish courthouse, is still standing.
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter county agent for aquaculture in Vermilion Parish, said alligator season has been under way and that probably 60 percent of the gators were caught before the storm. Although some alligator farms in the parish were damaged, Shirley was advising alligators farmers their animals should be able to survive a few days of saltwater.
On the other hand, Shirley said he expects fish will start dying in a few days.
"Vegetation is going to die and that decomposition will take oxygen out of the water and cause fish kills," he said. "But it depends on how deep and how long the water stays."
Rice, sugarcane and pasture also could be difficult to grow in the area of the tidal surge, because saltwater may contaminate the soil, Shirley said.
"Now you can’t plant rice for crawfish," he said of another potential effect.
Shirley estimated that 6,000 to 8,000 acres of crawfish ponds were affected.
Johnny Boudreaux said he has found about half of his 150 cattle, and he expects to find the other 75. He and Shirley joined Vermilion Parish Assessor Mike Langlinais, Dale Broussard of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Vermilion Parish mosquito control director Billy Nogle for an aerial count of cattle, dead and alive. The dead animals they could see totaled 100, and the count for animals surviving was set at 1,800.
Back on the ground, Boudreaux was in awe of the damage.
"I never saw anything like that in my life," Boudreaux said. "Devastation everywhere. Some of the cattle we saw that are trapped are going to die."
Roughly a dozen dead cattle were counted in the marsh several miles north of Pecan Island.
U.S. Army Maj. Kelly Ivanoff of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne, also on board for the cattle count, held out some hope for the animals still alive.
"I’d say 90 percent of those you can get to with a truck," Ivanoff said.
Cormier of the LSU AgCenter was among those on the ground rounding up strays with his horse. Many of the cattle have no identification, he said.
Cormier said more help is needed, but the work is difficult with much of it in 4-foot water.
"We need cowboys with horses and trailers," he said.
Cormier said people who want to help and cattle farmers needing help should contact the LSU AgCenter extension office in Vermilion Parish or another LSU AgCenter office.
At the Cecil McCrory Livestock Arena in Abbeville, free cattle feed provided by a representative of Cargill was being distributed for the cattle. Dogs rescued from flood waters are being boarded there, too.
While the damage in Vermilion and Cameron parishes provided some examples of the damage to the state’s agricultural industries, farmers in other parishes also suffered damage.
Damage for rice farmers across the area, particularly in western Louisiana parishes, was evident, and cotton damage was reported through central and northern Louisiana.
In Allen Parish, Ike Fawcett of Kinder said Hurricane Rita convinced him that he should get out of rice farming.
"This put the lid on the coffin," Fawcett said, surveying what was left of his damaged equipment barn.
His combine and other large pieces of equipment appeared unharmed, but some of it is buried beneath scraps of metal and wood. A piece of lumber pierced a plastic chemical tank.
Fawcett said he’s farmed all his life, and now at age 62, he’s not certain what he’ll do.
But he said he’s not sure he’ll even try to harvest crawfish this year because of high fuel prices and the possibility that the market has shrunk with a crippled New Orleans and East Texas.
Fawcett said a neighboring farmer had two silos of freshly cut rice that had not been dried before the storm hit. Because no power was available to run his dryer, the rice was damaged by excess heat.
East of Oberlin, rice farmer Weston Monceaux was working with a crew to clear debris from a storage shed that smashed four of a dozen storage bins.
"It will take $7,000 to fix each bin," Monceaux said, adding that his rice was already dry but probably got wet because the bins were cracked open.
To make matters worse, Monceaux’s father had to be rushed to the hospital after a fall.
"Hurricane Rita is kicking our butts," Monceaux said.
Writer: Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or email@example.com