On Eve of Mardi Gras, a Look Back At Katrina, Rita’s Battering of Farming in Gulf States

February 13, 2013

By Cristine Pastor

When the Mardi Gras celebration returned to New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana following the historic hurricanes of 2005, Jim Simon’s attendance as the resplendent King of New Iberia’s Krewe of Andalusia felt truly special.

Simon is the manager of the American Sugar Cane League (ASCL), which represents Louisiana sugarcane farmers and the state’s 11 sugar mills.

“Even when things were most grim we still found ways to enjoy life and honor our traditions,” he said, recalling the massive devastation inflicted on farmlands, buildings and private property by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

That particular Mardi Gras parade in which Simon and his wife Nancy sparkled as costumed royalty was a high moment. It followed a bleak period in 2005, when the Gulf states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were drowning from several days of high winds and flood surges and coping with the devastation left behind.

“The flooding of New Orleans was terrible with unprecedented loss of life,” said Simon. “The storm surge caused by Rita devastated towns and communities that are usually safe from high water.” Official reports estimate the loss of life at nearly 1,900 and property damage at $81 billion, making Katrina the costliest storm in U.S. history.

This tragic act of nature also took its toll on agriculture. A Congressional report titled “U.S. Agriculture After Hurricane Katrina: Status and Issues” concluded the widespread devastation had a substantial impact on three factors affecting U.S. agriculture: marketing infrastructure, production for major crops and livestock, and energy costs.

New Orleans is a vital agricultural port – a “gateway to the global market” – with more than half of the nation’s grain exports flowing down the Mississippi. The cityis also a vital hub for agricultural transport through its railroads.

More than 30 million pounds of chicken stored at New Orleans Cold Storage rotted in the refrigerated warehouse from loss of electrical power and floodwater. The country’s biggest coffee processing plant was also flooded and shuttered. And the country’s largest sugar refinery was temporarily closed.

A combination of hardy resilience on the part of the Gulf states farmers and risk management tools, such as crop insurance and no-cost sugar policy in the Farm Bill, made the near-impossible task of rebuilding – literally from scratch – doable.

“They (farmers in the Gulf states) are as resilient as those in any other region,” said analyst Keith Coble, a professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University.

Federal programs like crop insurance helped farmers recover some of their financial losses. The Congressional report said farmers in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana purchased just over $1 billion in crop insurance coverage for the crop year 2005, which covered nearly 70 percent of the value of crops including cotton, soybeans and rice.

“The three-state region has relatively high participation rates in the crop insurance program (in some cases 80 percent of eligible acreage),” the report states.

Crop insurance participation and coverage levels have increased since 2005, Coble said, noting how residents “struggle to assess low probability-high impact events like a hurricane.”

“Crop insurance is rapidly becoming a more integral part of southern producers’ risk management plans, the tool designed for deep catastrophic crop losses,” Coble said.

But crop insurance doesn’t work the same for all crops. Sugarcane, for example, is a perennial grass that doesn’t have high levels of workable insurance coverage, and Simon noted that the country’s sugar policy has helped his industry slowly recover.

This policy, which has operated without taxpayer cost since 2002, made sure that Louisiana growers still had a stable-priced market to come back to when the storm waters subsided.

Otherwise, he said, heavily subsidized producers from Brazil and Mexico would’ve gobbled up the market share and dealt a deathblow to south Louisiana’s fragile economy.

Instead, the community came out in hordes to Louisiana’s first Mardi Gras after Katrina, and Simon was relieved to see residents celebrate with their typical joie de vivre.

“While we remember the difficult times, we find the time to enjoy our lives,” he said.