Crops, Lessons Abound in Andrew's Wake
A year after Hurricane Andrew, farmers wonder whether recovery is due to nature or federal assistance
NEW ORLEANS — SMASHED, twisted, and uprooted by the sheer velocity of Hurricane Andrew, agricultural crops in Florida and Louisiana have, one year later, rebounded to a remarkable degree.
What it is less certain is whether the crops' durability is due to nature's way of healing itself or the frequently criticized, highly controversial efforts of the federal government to help farmers and others rebuild in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters of this century.
"What's amazing is how many of the crops in Florida did not suffer permanent damage and how even those that did are producing again," said Rob Clouser, a professor at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agriculture in Gainesville. "A lot of the crops, particularly in the southernmost part of the state, were nearly completely wiped out, but today farmers are working those same crops again and getting something out of them. It's very impressive."
In the days following Hurricane Andrew's destruction of last Aug. 23-25, Florida economists were distressed to see that the storm took its toll on virtually every producing crop in the state: citrus fruits, mangos, limes, avacados, and even the winter vegetable crops that brought in sales of more than $228 million in 1991.
In Louisiana, the lash from Hurricane Andrew was felt almost entirely in the state's important sugar cane crop, where up to 25 percent of the $500 million sugar crop was blown into the air - on some plantations, upward of 60 percent of the crop was lost.
But in both states, farmers and economists have watched storm-damaged crops successfully fight for a second chance, while new crops of cotton, sugar, and vegetables have come in on schedule, sprouting up unharmed by the devastation that swept over the land just months before.
"One of the things we were most worried about was the trees and how much damage might have been done to acres in southern Florida because of the ocean spray salt that blew in, " said Mr. Clouser. "But we found out that there really wasn't a lot of damage due to problems with residual salt, and that was good news. As for the trees, more and more we've seen that it has not been so much that they were broken in half as they were just blown completely out of the ground. And we've yet to see if they can be re planted on any large scale to grow again."
Louisiana sugar growers, worried that damage from Hurricane Andrew might be worse, were relieved to discover that much of the crop that remained was not broken so much as it was bent. Cane usually grows straight up toward the sun; the sugar cane after Hurricane Andrew took on a more circular form, making it more difficult to harvest and load on trucks headed for area mills.
"The end result is that it could have been much worse," said Charles Melancon, president of the American Cane Sugar League in Thibodaux, La. "We didn't lose any processing facilities, so that was a lucky break. But still, a lot of our farmers lost a lot of their investment, and the government to this day has not reimbursed them."
What the government has done during the past year for farmers and other victims of Hurricane Andrew remains a topic of heated controversy and conjecture. Farmers in both Florida and Louisiana say that the government's chief disaster relief agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reacted sluggishly to the storm, delaying much-needed financial support in a snarl of red tape for weeks while denying aid to other farmers who were unable to document their losses.
THE government really screwed up on this one," said Robert Kupperman, a former member of FEMA's advisory board who now is a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington. "Here you had people out of their homes and jobs, farmers with their entire crops destroyed, and they took days and weeks on end to respond. I think we are just kidding ourselves if we think FEMA is capable of dealing with any kind of big sustained emergency on the order of Hurricane Andrew."
Mr. Kupperman has called for dismantling FEMA completely and putting in its place a command control operation run out of the White House with the president actively involved in day-to-day operations.
"They employ about 2,400 people right now," he said, "but I think you could do just as effective a job with about 100 professionals in the White House and another 400 to 500 out in the field."
As an example of how an emergency response effort should be run, Kupperman pointed to President Clinton's role this summer in the Midwest flooding of the Mississippi River.
"He was personally involved, and the relief effort came right out of the White House. President Bush let FEMA operate on its own, and they just weren't up to the job."
Noting, however, that FEMA has spent more than $2 billion in relief for people in both Florida and Louisiana, Richard Krimm, a state and local program director for FEMA, admitted that his agency's response could have been better.
But FEMA did spend more than $300 million in emergency flood loans for farmers through the Farmers Home Administration as well as direct aid through the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Mr. Krimm said, adding, "We learned a lot from this disaster. Since then we have greatly improved our response capabilities. If anything like this were to happen again, there is no doubt in my mind the response time would be much shorter."
In Franklin, La., where farmland, marshes, and swamps bore the brunt of Hurricane Andrew's wrath, Mayor Sam Jones (D) said that if FEMA really wants to improve its response time, it should simply send communities money and worry about coordinating programs for later. "There would have to be some accountability, of course" said Mr. Jones, "but the first thing you need in that aftermath is money for food and shelter and relocations. The people at FEMA may have learned a lot from this hurricane, but I think
what those of us at the local level learned is that we can solve problems immediately because we're on the scene. That's been our lesson."
Meanwhile, another lesson from Hurricane Andrew has been whatever is destroyed usually needs to be replaced, and that's proven to be a boon for agriculture.
"Greenhouse products are making the biggest comeback," said Clouser of the University of Florida. "Shrubberies, flowers, and trees were blown away, but that doesn't mean people won't replace them. There's been a real demand for landscaping and the replanting of trees and shrubs, and that probably wouldn't have happened if there hadn't been a hurricane."