By Marlee Moore and Debra Davis
Slow-moving Hurricane Sally stalled for hours along Alabama’s Gulf Coast Sept. 16, her creeping progress flooding fields — and farmers’ hopes for bumper harvests.
“It started blowing high winds about 3 a.m. and didn’t stop till mid-morning. It was a beating,” said Eric Street, who farms near Fairhope with his brother, Tobin.
Forecasters originally predicted the storm would hit the Louisiana coast, but as it slowly churned in the Gulf, the storm turned east and made landfall in Alabama — 16 years to the day since Hurricane Ivan devastated the state.
Before the Category 2 storm brought 100-plus mph winds and over 20 inches of rain, Street was optimistic about his crops.
“We felt like we had a great crop of cotton, an awesome crop of peanuts and one of our best crops of soybeans,” said Street, who serves on the Alabama Farmers Federation State Soybean Committee. “This is why we buy crop insurance and why we bought the new hurricane protection insurance.”
Street’s fellow Gulf Coast farmers praised the new insurance product, developed by the Risk Management Agency, when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue met with leaders Sept. 28.
Perdue said the listening session will help ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture appropriates resources and personnel to assist farmers as they recover.
Roundtable members included Federation President Jimmy Parnell, Federation state board member Mark Kaiser, Baldwin County Farmers Federation (BCFF) President Hope Cassebaum, and BCFF board members Joel Sirmon and Ray Bertolla. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, and Alabama Agriculture & Industries Commissioner Rick Pate helped coordinate the event.
The extent of damage to soybean, cotton and peanut quality and yields will become clear throughout harvest, but loss of massive, decades-old pecan trees is a pressing concern. Farmers estimate as many as 40% of their trees were overturned.
At Cassebaum’s farm in Lillian, limbs were loaded with pecans before the storm. The bumper crop popped underfoot as she and her husband, Todd, surveyed orchard damage.
“Years’ worth of work is devastated,” Todd said. “We had a good crop coming before the storm. The wind was so hard the trunks rocked and fell. They just couldn’t take it.”
A concrete irrigation pivot foundation ripped from the soil told a similar story at Kaiser’s farm in Seminole.
“We knew once it slowed like that, we were in trouble,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of prep you can do but only so much time.”
Dillon Turk shared Kaiser’s sentiment. Across Mobile Bay in Semmes, his family’s Martin’s Nursery uncovered greenhouses in preparation for the storm.
“If a bunch of wind is coming and we know it, we need to uncover the plastic,” said Turk, the Mobile County Young Farmers chair. “If the wind catches it, it can tear the whole greenhouse down. It’s hard enough to get ready with enough heads up, much less with a day’s notice.”
Fortunately, the nursery’s power was restored the day after the storm, while neighbors in Baldwin County powered up days later. Snapped power poles and downed lines were common sights the day after the storm.
Farmers farther inland felt Sally’s wrath, too. The storm dumped record amounts of rain, causing extensive damage to crops, pond dams and roadways.
Help to farmers and homeowners came in the form of 35 additional Alfa Insurance adjusters and agents deployed to help customers impacted by Hurricane Sally. Adjusters and agents were checking on customers and taking claims as soon as the storm moved out, said Parnell, also president of Alfa.
The Federation also established a relief fund to help growers whose farms were damaged by Hurricane Sally, which can be accessed at AlabamaFarmersFoundation.org.
In Fairhope, Street spent the day after the storm helping neighbors clear driveways. He said storms like Sally put life into perspective.
“My family is accounted for, and no one is hurt. That’s what I care about,” he said. “This is going to be a kick, but we will recover.”