STORY BY Neil Melancon and Avery Davidson
Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina was something of a slow-moving disaster for New Orleans.
A month of flooding in the city from levee failures did deep damage—the scars of which can still be seen today. For rural Louisiana, while the damage is cleaned up, the scars still remain and that’s only for the lucky who are still in business this decade later.
Many dairy and nursery business went under after the storm from the severe financial hardships. Dairy producers who didn’t have power lost cows from mastitis because they were unable to all be milked. For ornamental flower nurseries, the damage to irrigation structures, lost plants and lost markets proved to be too much. Oyster beds were trashed by the storm and much of Louisiana’s citrus crop literally went with the wind.
Many farmers who avoided Katrina were subsequently hurt by Hurricane Rita a month later. Few farmers or rural residents, if any, remember 2005 with any degree of fondness.
“It was utter devastation then,” said Ronnie Anderson, president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau. “The crops. The animals. The homes, the barns and all the facilities that were destroyed was tough, but the people’s lives that were disrupted during that time was the hardest.”
While Anderson’s East Feliciana beef cattle operation was spared major loss, the personal angle hit home. As he delivered gas and generators to dairy farmers in his area, he was witness to fellow livestock producers lose everything.
“The cattle that survived in flooded areas got on the levees and then they were subjected to drinking salt water,” Anderson said. “A lot of them died after that, and those were the ones that weren’t killed during the storm surge. We lost the citrus crop in Plaquemines Parish completely. We lost most of the citrus in that part of the state.”
A.J. Sabine was covering the storm for This Week in Louisiana Agriculture, which is produced by the Louisiana Farm Bureau. He watched in horror as people he had done stories on in the past lost everything.
“I was on the north shore in Folsom, covering what looked like endless, endless damage of trees down, pipes broken, people in tears wondering how they were going to make a living,” Sabine said. “Most nurserymen are independent. This is their bread and butter, this is all they do. There’s no such thing as a partnership or other monies coming in to help them along.
“So it was no surprise one nurseryman whom I interviewed had basically lost everything,” he added. “All she had left was 20-gallon plants that you couldn’t sell because there was no market. All of her irrigation piping was destroyed by wind, trees or debris. She was in tears and all she had left was what was in front of her.”
Sabine is a native of New Orleans and while his family was safely evacuated to his Port Allen home, he bore witness to childhood landmarks go under.
“I had a very full house,” Sabine said. “My wife and I, our three kids, my dad and his wife and all their possessions were there. That was already a period of anxiety for me.
“Having it happen to my family, to my home where I grew up and to my neighborhood,” he added, shaking his head. “Seeing the Circle Grocery store where I often got fruit or candy or whatever in four-and-half feet of water. It’s just totally unsettling. I’m reminded on this anniversary of how many people suffered. At the time, I was basically serving two masters because I couldn’t really concentrate knowing what was on my heart, dealing with my family on the personal side. Yet, also, I was empathizing with nurserymen and other farmers who were devastated.”
Former TWILA Producer Bill Sherman first surveyed the damage with his camera from the air. According to Sherman, it did not prepare him for what was actually on the ground.
“I had the opportunity to fly with one of Commissioner Bob Odom’s fire-spotting planes,” Sherman said. “It was about three days after the storm and that was the only way you could access and see some of the damage.
“You could see the scope of the damage, but if you’re up in the air, you don’t get the emotional pull of the destruction,” he added. “On the ground is where you really see the homes, the people, and the toll on an emotional level in the sense of loss from the devastation.”
Anderson saw and heard the devastation, both in his personal trips and through his organization’s media. At home, though, is where the impact of 2005 hit hardest. His wife, Vivian, lost her mother a week before the storm, a presage of the tragedy to come.
“We went out to Metairie where she lost an uncle, he was right by the 17th St. canal,” Anderson said. “He was in his 80’s. He went in the attic and it just got too hot. He couldn’t get out and he either had a heart attack or drowned trying to get out of there.”
“She had another friend down there that was in a nursing facility and she disappeared for about a week,” he added. “They had to evacuate and nobody knew where they were. We found out that she was here in Baton Rouge, but she died a week after Katrina. Vivian’s mother died a week before Katrina and this lady, a real good friend of the family who lived in the French Quarter, died a week after Katrina.”
The memory has never left Anderson or anyone in south Louisiana who lived through those times, even as New Orleans and the surrounding rural areas repaired damage. From the lives lost in the storm, to the nurseries and dairies out of business on the north shore and the citrus and livestock producers who never really returned south of the city, some things cannot be repaired.