Hurricane Michael greater threat to Ga. farmers than first feared

Listen as Catherine Howden talks about how GEMA is preparing to respond to Hurricane Michael. (video by John Spink. Edited by William Thweatt)

With a wildly rare Category 3 storm battering southwest Georgia on Wednesday night, Hurricane Michael appeared to be even worse than farmers had first feared.

The storm made landfall with 155 mph winds and weakened only slightly as it crossed into the state, endangering key crops, as well as poultry and dairy farms.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, assured state officials the federal government would help to restore the businesses after the hurricane passes. It was clear that farmers and other food producers could be hurting.

“The full support of the USDA, the team work and the partnership is unquestioned,” the state agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, said Wednesday night after speaking with Perdue and senior staff at the White House. “Right now, we’re not in a position to even know what we need.”


Hurricane Michael: Hazards, forecast, rainfall totals across south, central Georgia

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The region is where most of Georgia’s row crops, such as ever-important peanuts and cotton, are concentrated, along with pecans and vegetables. Black said harvesting is still underway for this year’s crops. Only 5 percent of the pecans have been collected; 15 percent of cotton; 33 percent of fall vegetables; and half of peanuts.

The storm’s eye crossed into southwest Georgia at about 5:45 p.m., making it the first major hurricane to enter the state since 1898, according to Channel 2 Action News. That was after Michael barreled ashore from the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 4 storm, making it the strongest to hit the Florida Panhandle since reliable record-keeping began.

Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday spoke with President Donald Trump, who may be coming to Georgia next week to survey the damage, White House officials told reporters on Air Force One.

At the state agriculture department, the speedy run-up to Michael initially had Black concerned mostly about crops in southwest Georgia, but he said that changed Wednesday afternoon after he received reports of winds in excess of 115 mph north of Bainbridge, which is about 15 miles north of the Florida line. The winds raised his worry about damage to several large dairy and poultry operations — farms where the animals are raised, as well as processing plants.

Winds that high also mean power outages — tens of thousands were reported quickly after Michael crept into Georgia — which could lead to food spoilage issues at grocery and convenience stores.

Mass spoilages could hurt businesses and residents who depend on them for food in the state’s rural reaches.

But there was little to do Wednesday night but wait for daylight to assess the damage, Black said. The state agriculture department intended to send out teams to assist businesses and residents at 6:30 a.m. Thursday.

“Our farmers need our prayers right now,” Black said, “but I tell you in the weeks to come, they’re going to be needing help.”

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