October 22, 2018 10:00 AM
This week’s Courier Herald column:
Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm to hit the state of Georgia in over a century. Georgia was especially unlucky during the 1890’s, with a Category 4 storm hitting Brunswick in 1898 It followed a Category 3 storm that made landfall in Florida in 1896 taking damage up the Georgia coast and another Category 3 storm that hit near Savannah in 1893.
Strong storms are not new, but rare. What made Michael different is that its impact didn’t begin on Georgia’s coast, but instead crossed into the state from Florida near Bainbridge, still maintaining Category 3 winds. The impact will be felt for generations.
Pictures don’t do justice when trying to convey the damage done by hurricanes. We’re quite used to seeing boats on dry land, homes without roofs, and inland, trees down on homes and cars. Pictures provide a snapshot. They fail to capture the scale.
The Weather Channel is circulating before and after satellite maps that begin to put perspective on the magnitude of the damage. Approximately 10 days after the storm, a roughly 50-mile swath of land from the Florida coast deep into Southwest Georgia has turned from green to brown. That’s vegetation of various sorts that was alive and vibrant the morning of the storm, that is now likely on the ground turning brown as it begins to decay.
While the immediate impact of the storm was measured in homes and businesses without power – including complete parts of the transmission grid that must be replaced – current measurements are measured in monetary losses. There is significant property damage in Southwest Georgia. The losses to the agriculture industry will impact the area for a generation or longer.
Much of the initial reports focused on the area’s cotton and peanut crops. Farmers were expecting a record year for their cotton. Instead, with just more than 10% of the crop harvested, many farmers fear a total loss. Cotton is Georgia’s second largest cash crop. Loss estimates to farmers are as high as $800 Million. That’s just one crop, in an area of the state least able to afford it.
Peanuts were impacted but were fortunate that the storm contained more wind than rain, as it moved fast enough to avoid major flooding. Damages are estimated at $10-$20 Million.
The damage is much deeper than these two staple crops of Southwest Georgia. Various vegetable crop losses will approach $500 Million. Losses to the poultry industry, including the complete loss of 97 houses and 2 million chickens, will add another $25 million in losses.
All of those represent sizable immediate impacts. Then there’s pecans and timber. They’ve suffered real losses for farmers this year, and for future years.
Seminole county pecan farmers are reporting a 100% crop loss. Decatur County reports 85%, and Grady County reports 35%. Entire pecan orchards up to 1,000 acres report all trees uprooted. That’s not a loss just for this year, but for a decade. It takes 7 years or longer before a planted tree will begin to produce pecans. Damage to this industry is estimated at $560 Million.
Similarly, Georgia’s timber farmers may have lost $1 Billion in timber value. Trees that were knocked down can still be harvested, but there’s a matter of weeks before beetles will begin to infest fallen trees. Add to that the sudden unexpected supply arriving at local mills, and the value of the trees begins to fall rapidly for what can be saved. It can take decades to replace the losses.
Those are some statistics, but like pictures, fail to really convey what our Southwest Georgia neighbors are feeling. Last night I had an exchange with a Facebook friend from Bainbridge, asking him what I was missing or what other Georgians needed to know. This line from our exchange stood out to me:
“Schools are in shambles. Churches are destroyed. Homes are destroyed…the miracle is that there were so few injuries and deaths. For that we are thankful!”
In any community, but especially a rural one, the institutions that hold neighbors together are the churches and the schools. Homes aren’t looked at as a temporary place to put belongings between corporate relocations, but as places with generational memories.
Numbers can attempt to measure the economic damages. Pictures can capture physical destruction. But take away a community’s churches or its schools, and you’ll begin to see how bad people are hurting. It’s deeper than any picture, economic analysis, or column can describe.