Tropical storms pummel lower Southeast crops

Within the span of less than a week, two major storms — Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis — hit parts of the lower Southeast from July 4 through July 10, causing crop damage in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Alabama officials reported rainfall amounts from the two storms reaching as much as 8 inches in some areas, including Mobile and the Gulf Coast. Many areas actually were in need of rain, and the storms provided a needed boost, improving conditions significantly.

In mid-July, farmers were still in the process of assessing the full effects of Hurricane Dennis, but initial indications were that damage was less than had been expected.

William Birdsong, Auburn University Extension agronomist, reported that growers had been concerned about Hurricane Dennis and were relieved to have minimal damage in the Wiregrass Region of the state. He estimated that about 5 percent of the corn crop was negatively affected by the storm.

Some corn was blown over in other parts of the state as well. The wet weather was a big help to the majority of the state's corn crop, but it came a little late to some fields which will suffer yield loss.

Alabama Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks says overall damage was minimal to moderate, but there was major damage in Baldwin, Escambia and Monroe Counties. Damage included wind damage to crops and farm buildings, lowland flooding, trees falling on fences, and limited livestock losses.

Nurseries experienced some plant loss, and almost half of the state’s nurseries lost the plastic on their greenhouses.

“Based on current reports, Alabama farmers and producers have been very fortunate compared to the widespread devastation incurred by Hurricane Ivan last year,” says Sparks. “Most people feel truly blessed that Dennis lost a lot of its strength so quickly.”

Storms Cindy and Dennis also pummeled most areas of Georgia, according to the state’s agricultural statistics service. Up to 4 inches of rain were common throughout Georgia with some areas receiving more. Heavy rains coupled with strong winds damaged crops and delayed fieldwork. Soil moisture levels were rated 1 percent very short, 5 percent short, 57 percent adequate, and 37 percent surplus.

Pastures, corn, and grain sorghum in Georgia continued to improve from the recent rains. In east central Georgia, the rains reduced the recent dry conditions. Wet weather conditions and high humidity were causing a rise in diseases for commercial vegetables. Sucker control was being applied on tobacco fields in mid-July, and herbicides and fungicides applied on cotton and peanuts. Pecan scab and leafspot were appearing in pecans.

“A large part of the problem, particularly across north Georgia, is the fact that the area got inundated a few days earlier by Cindy,” says state Climatologist David Stooksbury. “There was not much buffering left in the system. Once it started raining, the water didn't have many places left to go.”

On July 13, Gov. Sonny Perdue requested disaster assistance from the Small Business Administration for Cherokee, Cobb, Colquitt, Douglas and Worth counties due to Dennis' impact. The assistance, if approved, would provide low-interest loans to homeowners, renters and businesses.

"State and local emergency management assessment teams have reported that many homes and businesses have sustained significant damage," Perdue said in a press release. "We hope to make this assistance available as soon as possible."

The Georgia crops most damaged include pecans, peaches, corn, hay, vegetables and tobacco, Perdue says.

Georgia Pecan Commission Chairman Charles "Buddy" Leger, who is also a south Georgia grower, says he lost 5 percent to 10 percent of this year's crop “because, at this stage, when the wind whips the limbs around, the nuts will come off.”

But Leger has seen worse from tropical storms. “Last year we had a direct hit,” he says. “This year we were on the fringe. Basically, all we got was water and wind.”

Whipping winds sent peach limbs swinging, too, puncturing the fruit. But that's only a part of this year's peach crop woes.

“Peaches have been hit hard all year,” says Frank Funderburk Peach County coordinator with the University of Georgia Extension Service. “All year long we've had rain, and disease problems have been worse than normal.”

Peach County is Georgia's top peach-producing county. Mostly because of heavy spring rains, growers there have “had increased diseases on varieties we didn't suspect would have disease,” Funderburk says.

Dennis hit the state's watermelon and cantaloupe crops, too.

If the state meets the minimum criteria for disaster aid, Perdue will ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assistance.

While this hurricane season has been predicted to be more active than last year's, “we can't read any more into it,” Stooksbury says. “It's abnormal to have this many tropical storms this early in the season. Abnormal events do occur, though.”

The two tropical storm systems also brought significant rainfall to the Florida Panhandle during the week of July 4 through 10. The formation of Tropical Storm Cindy off the East Coast in the Atlantic caused some sporadic showers in the Panhandle while Hurricane Dennis was churning out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Outer rain bands crossed the Peninsula as Hurricane Dennis moved northward into the Gulf of Mexico towards the northwestern coastline as significant rains and intermittent squalls tore through the Panhandle as Dennis made landfall on July 10.

Recorded rainfall for the week in the Panhandle as well as the northern Peninsula ranged from a little over 3 inches in Carabelle to nearly 7inches in Jefferson and Madison counties. However, some localities may have received more precipitation than the official recorded amount. Areas in the southern Peninsula received up to 6 inches of rain with most areas reporting over 2 to 4 inches for post Hurricane Dennis preliminary totals. Elsewhere, in central Peninsula localities rainfall totals ranged from nearly an inch in Apopka to nearly 4 inches in Bronson.

Growers in the Panhandle as well as the northern Peninsula were assessing their fields to determine the impact of the wind gusts and rains. Hamilton County growers have reported problems with flood damage to corn as well as tobacco in low-lying areas. Growers in Jackson County were reporting damage to cotton and peanut fields with some growers reporting flood damage.

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