Linda F. Benedict, Blanchard, Tobie M.
In September 2005, Hurricane Rita’s storm surge inundated coastal southwest Louisiana. In the storm’s aftermath, Vermilion Parish county agent Andrew Granger was organizing efforts to save cattle affected by the storm.
“Andrew should have been hauling furniture out his house and putting it on the roof or something, but he was out there helping us. Helping the community to try to get them out of the water,” said Johnny Boudreaux, a rice and cattle producer in Vermilion.
“After seeing the destruction, seeing the cattle loose, and just talking to the people – the depression and despair they felt – it was my commodity, and it was my people, and we had to do something about it,” Granger said.
Granger and other agents in the Vermilion extension office took in hay donations from neighboring states and helped distribute them to producers. They helped round up displaced cattle and brought water and feed to stranded livestock. They got out information about mold remediation and cleaning homes after a flood. They helped fishers find ways to recover vessels or get back into the water.
This is what extension does in times of crisis. Extension has been helping Louisiana recover from disasters since World War I. During the lean years of the war, extension and 4-H workers helped people become more self-sufficient through gardening and canning.
Extension is recognized as the national authority in food preservation practices. Beth Reames, a retired nutritionist and food safety expert with the LSU AgCenter, said agents helped people learn canning techniques for putting up food for the winter.
“Safe food practices, preparation methods, all of these the home demonstration agents were able to provide to people who were not able to get this information otherwise,” Reames said.
Fredrick Williamson wrote in “Origin and Growth of Agricultural Extension in Louisiana” that at the time of World War I, health issues assumed a large place in extension work. Agents gave instruction on healthy diets, sanitation and control of mosquitoes and flies in homes.
In 1927, swollen rivers flooded 3 million acres of land – most of it land under cultivation. Crops and livestock were destroyed. Thirty-one parishes were affected by the Great Flood of 1927. No other agency had the network in place to provide statewide help like extension did. This event tested and helped shape extension’s disaster relief efforts.
Williamson said extension helped with evacuations, salvaging property and livestock and organizing refugee camps. Agents in unaffected parishes collected food and clothing for refugees and feed for livestock. Agents also held food and nutrition classes at refugee camps.
After the flood waters receded, extension helped with replanting crops and rehabilitation of homes.
Williamson also cites extension efforts during the flood and the Great Depression that followed, which helped avert what could have been mass starvation.
Home demonstration efforts were once again called into action during World War II. Louisiana 4-H’ers helped grow Victory Gardens to supply food.
During modern disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, extension continued to play a major role in assisting people with disaster relief and recovery.
Agents across the state mobilized after Hurricane Katrina, organizing recovery efforts and helping at shelters. Agents were responsible for compiling damage estimates for each parish, which is crucial for national relief funding. The protocols that worked during Katrina were used again during hurricanes Rita, which struck a month later, and again in Gustav and Ike, both in 2008.
“They’ve particularly been a good resource during the hurricanes,” said Abbeville rice farmer David LaCour. “We had over 1,000 acres of rice ground go under a storm surge of salt water, and the AgCenter was particularly helpful with determining salt tolerances for rice varieties. They were a valuable resource in helping us determine when it would be good to go back into the fields.”
Extension agents also work to get things back to normal following a disaster. Students were out of school after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but 4-H tried to keep them in a routine. Agents held youth programs for evacuees at shelters. 4-H clubs got back together as quickly as they could
“I think it really helped the kids because they had activities they could take part in and kind of get back to a regular form of life,” said Kirk Soileau, an administrator in Vermilion Parish schools.
In 2010, Louisiana’s fishers were in turmoil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Thu Biu, a fisheries agent in St. Mary Parish was instrumental in working with the fishing community, particularly the Vietnamese fishers, to understand the regulations and closures.
“There was a lot of information that needed to get out in a manner that was fast and for the fisherman to understand because there were closures that occurred almost daily once or twice a day,” she said.
In Vermilion Parish, fisheries agent Mark Shirley was organizing meetings to help fishers get answers. Shirley has helped his community recover from storms and the spill.
“The disaster recovery things we did after Rita or Ike or even the BP oil spill, we did that because we live here,” said Mark Shirley. “It’s not because of some higher directive from Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C., or somewhere. We all live in this community.”
That is the strength of the extension service – a network of agents based in parishes working to help their communities thrive and survive. And in coastal areas where storms seem more frequent, extension is helping communities recover more quickly.
“We’re not going to abandon our coastal community. We have too many resources,” Shirley said. “So we have to learn to live with storms and disasters, and we’re doing that.”
Tobie Blanchard is an associate communications specialist, LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)
Watch the 1:23-min video, Agents of Change: Disaster Preparation & Recovery.