Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Eric Cohen standing next to uprooted pecan tree
CAES alumnus Eric Cohen (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’97) stands next to a newly planted pecan tree on his family's orchard outside of Bainbridge, Georgia, in March. The 125-acre plantation, which produces specialty pecan oils, has been replanting to replace hundreds of trees lost in the storm. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

Georgia Extension agents rally to help victims of Hurricane Michael

Southerners are known for their hospitality. They reach out to those in need by cooking a meal, baking a pie or pitching in. Helping people where they need it most is part of University of Georgia Cooperative Extension’s mission, so when Hurricane Michael struck several southwest Georgia counties, county agents were there to help.

Hurricane Michael cut a path of destruction through the state on Oct. 10, 2018, causing more than $2.5 billion in losses to the state’s agriculture industry, according to estimates from UGA Extension agents and agricultural economists. The timing could not have been worse for farmers who were ready to harvest their cotton, pecans, peanuts and vegetables.

At 50, Decatur County farmer Jeff Barber has lived through tornadoes, but Hurricane Michael was a new experience. His cotton crop and his chickens, which “pay the bills,” he said, were destroyed. Barber was able to save some of his peanut crop and even though the storm flattened his sweet corn, it was salvageable.

“(UGA Extension) has always been there for us, but y’all really gotta be here for us now,” said Barber to Decatur County Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) agent Nan Bostick (MPPPM – Plant Protection and Pest Management, ‘17) just a week after the disaster struck. “Nematodes in our cotton aren’t a problem now. Y’all need to come up with hurricane-resistant cotton.”

Bostick, who joined the Extension office in April 2018, was shocked at the extent of the damage.

“Not only was our best cotton destroyed, so were the crop dusters, the equipment, sheds, barns, peanut-buying points, pivots, chicken houses, power lines, trees, homes — the list goes on and on,” she said. “Farmers have shown me that they are resilient, positive and are going to start over and do everything they can to be even better. I couldn’t be prouder to help them any way I can as an Extension agent, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of a community that is so willing to help others first before themselves. We might be bruised, but we are not broken.”

Being 100 miles inland, residents in the Seminole County seat of Donalsonville, Georgia, didn’t expect the amount of damage they suffered.

“It was a Category 5 when it hit Mexico Beach and it was a full Category 3 with 115 mph winds with gusts up to 140 mph when it hit us. I just sat in my truck and watched the trees come down,” said Andrew Warner, who was the Seminole County agent when Hurricane Michael hit. “It took a day to get all the trees moved so we could get out of my neighborhood.”

Some UGA Extension agents waited to address damage and power outages at their own homes to help their clients. In the hardest hit areas — Decatur, Miller and Seminole counties — some residents were without power for four to six weeks.

“The first three days were tough while we waited for the National Guard and emergency management agencies to get water here and set up a staging point. We had no power, no gas, no anything. No one thought it was going to be that bad,” said Warner, who survived at first on beef jerky, chips and soft drinks.

Looking back, Decatur County Extension Coordinator Lindsey Hayes can’t believe what she experienced — gas stations with no fuel, closed businesses and extended power outages. Her own home was without power for two weeks.

“We’ve certainly eaten our share of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but we are grateful that our county had no fatalities,” Hayes said of herself and her husband, Brian Hayes, the UGA Extension ANR agent in Mitchell County. “Our farmers are not only survivors, they will overcome these hardships with their faith and determination. My appreciation for our close-knit community is strengthened.”

The Screven County 4-H program organized a drive to collect bottled water, paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates, diapers, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, nonperishable food and pet food for those affected by the storm. Eleven counties participated from across Georgia.

“They also collected a lot of baby wipes for the workers who were out in the fields,” said
Andrea Scarrow (MAL – Agricultural Leadership, ’13), head of Extension’s Southwest District. “When there’s no running water, you need a way to wash your hands.” Scarrow, a former UGA Extension Family and Consumer Sciences agent, had been leading the district just a few months when the hurricane hit. She and her team of agents plan to use what they have learned from the experience to prepare for future events.

Cell towers across the storm’s path were damaged and many cell phones had little to no connectivity, severing communications between communities.

“I think that we realized internally that we have some processes that we need to put in place. With the phone outages, it took us two and sometimes three days just to make sure everyone was accounted for,” Scarrow said.

“Despite the communication barriers, our Extension agents became an integral part of the emergency teams in their counties and did everything that was expected of them and more. They were completely focused on helping their clientele, from providing food and hauling water to repairing roofs.”

“Hurricane Michael shook Georgia agriculture. It also changed the way UGA Extension prepares for disasters,” she added.

“Before, we had no point of reference to understand the magnitude of damage that was going to occur,” Scarrow said. “We are used to having residents in other states evacuate to
Georgia. We didn’t have a clear picture of what this would mean to our families. We know how to help others in need; we just aren’t as used to being the ones in need and not having a way to receive outside help.”

By Sharon Dowdy Cruse

Extension agent Brian Hayes talking to farmer Jeff Barber and Extension agent Nan Bostick
Mitchell County Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent Brian Hayes, left, talks with farmer Jeff Barber and Decatur County Extension ANR agent Nan Bostick about the storm damage from Hurricane Michael on Hayes’ farm in Decatur County, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

Hurricane Michael shook Georgia agriculture. It also changed the way UGA Extension prepares for disasters.

Andrea Scarrow

Damage to chicken houses and feed silos
Feed silos are all that remain of chicken houses that were destroyed by Hurricane Michael along a highway in south Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)