Richard Niemann, Woodsboro, Texas, spent last Friday night listening to what sounded like “something ungodly” tearing at his home as sustained winds of 140 miles per hour and gusts topping 150 from Hurricane Harvey hit this small town near the Texas coast.
Harvey failed in that effort, managing to shake loose a few shingles and some siding, and leaving a little water damage and an uprooted, centuries old oak tree to remind him of the hurricane’s power.
“I rode it out,” Niemann said almost a week later as he and neighbors began what will be a long, arduous process of recovering and, in too many cases, rebuilding. “I will never do that again,” he says. “We had eight hours of sustained winds above 100 miles per hour. I feared that the house would go at any second, but it held up well. A lot of people nearby lost everything. Some had nothing left but the clothes they had on before the storm hit.”
Harvey is the second hurricane Niemann has rode out. The first was Celia, back when he was a child (1970). “That one was not as strong and moved through faster,” he recalls. “We were right on the edge of the eye wall in this one, and had no reprieve for eight hours. We would have been better off if the eye had gone over us; at least we would have had a break.”
Niemann is a cotton farmer and had just finished harvesting one of the best crops he’s made in years. “We had 80 percent of it (in modules) still in the field,” he says.
The cotton crop across the Texas Gulf Coast region was expected to be a record—high yields and good quality. Consequently, gin yards were full and had nowhere to put more modules.
Conventional modules were “pretty much torn apart,” Niemann says. “Ten-foot high modules were reduced to 2 feet.”
About 30 percent of Niemann’s cotton was pressed into those conventional, tarped, rectangular modules. The other 70 percent, harvested with on-board module pickers and tightly wrapped into round bales, withstood the storm much better. Niemann says his ginner expects about 95 percent of the round bale modules will be “ginnable cotton.”
A few round bales took on water damage, if they were rolled into ditches or otherwise remained in standing water. “The ginner says most of the round bales are wet to only about three inches,” Niemann says. “We don’t know what the quality will be.”
The cotton that remains may not be ginned until early next year, Niemann fears. “Our gin at Bayside-Richardson is torn up, so we will have to move cotton elsewhere to gin it.”
The delay will be hard on farmers who need money to start recovery efforts and to settle up 2017 crop loans.
“We are running out of money,” he says, “and we are not sure what our bankers are going to do. Insurance will help, but we have to get the cotton ginned to see if we have a loss.”
Insurance coverage is another question. Niemann says after the cotton is reported to the gin, the gin’s insurance takes over, usually. “We have a $50 million policy covering the whole Texas Gulf Coast,” he adds. “We’re told that will be maxed out.” This loss is not like losing modules to fire, where you lose one or two; a lot of modules have been lost.
He says crop insurance should cover losses up to historic yields. “We hope the gin insurance will cover what we actually harvested (up to maximum coverage levels).” Coverage remains uncertain, for now.
Niemann thinks from 25 percent to 30 percent of the area’s crop is “totaled out.” Remaining cotton will likely be a question until it’s ginned and classed.
GIN DAMAGE IS SEVERE
David Wyatt, manager of the Bayside-Richardson Co-op Gin, says he was optimistic early on that he could get the gin up and running again in four to six weeks. On further inspection four to six months seems more likely. “The gin is in bad shape,” he said Thursday (Aug. 31) nearly a week after the storm hit. He says walls were pushed in, exposing equipment to wind and water damage. The seed house and the burr house were battered.
A lot of the cotton on the gin yard is also badly damaged or lost. Wyatt agrees with Niemann that conventional modules sustained significantly more damage than the round ones. “The round bales fared well; the conventional ones were in trouble. Sustained 130-mile per hour winds and gusts to 150 when it came ashore tore the modules apart.” He says a nurse tank from the gin yard ended up two miles away.
“We have modules scattered all over the county,” he adds. “The wind blew from the north and west, so modules situated north to south are mostly gone. Those positioned east and west are peeled off from the side, some as much as three-fourths gone, some less. “Probably 90 percent of the conventional modules are lost.”
He says farmers finished harvest the day before the storm hit.
“I’ve never experienced anything that bad,” Wyatt says. “I rode out one hurricane, Celia, when I was 12 years old but couldn’t really estimate the damage. That one was pretty rough.”
He remembered enough to know he didn’t want to risk this one. “We left town Friday afternoon and came back Saturday. We lost a few trees, but 20 miles north was a lot different.”
CORPUS CHRISTI FORTUNATE
Communities further south were different, too, with less damage. Colin Chopelas farms near Corpus Christi, in Nueces County, and says, “We were very fortunate. North and east of here, they’re in bad shape.” He says if the storm had tracked about 30 miles south, Corpus Christi would have been “a massive disaster.”
He says his home was spared significant damage.
His cotton was also safe from the storm. “We had everything harvested and ginned,” he says. “Everything was in a warehouse and safe from water damage. We made a great crop, about 1,100 pounds per acre average. We are on the drier end of the Coastal Bend, but some fields still made more than three bales. Some San Patricio County cotton averaged 3.5 bales.”
Chopelas also expressed concern about insurance coverage. “We need some clarification about coverage,” he says. “This a situation we have not seen before, and we need to determine if the gin insurance covers cotton after it’s reported or is it the farmer’s crop insurance. It’s something we need to address.”
A statement from the USDA Risk Management Agency distributed just before the storm indicated that if farmers needed to move modules to areas where they would be less vulnerable, they needed to have the movement certified to assure continued coverage.
Included in the release is this statement from Section 7(a) of the Cotton Crop Provisions which states:
“In lieu of section 11(b)(2) of the Basic Provisions, insurance will end upon the removal of the cotton from the field.” Producers are looking to safeguard their cotton modules from flooding, but also need insurance coverage to continue for potential wind damage. Mitigating losses by authorizing permission for insured producers to move modules from the field, while maintaining insurability, is in the best interest of insured producers and the Federal crop insurance program.
Approved insurance providers (AIPs), on a case by case basis, may authorize producers to move cotton modules from the field without affecting insurability. This only includes cotton fields expected to be impacted by Tropical Storm Harvey. Insured producers and AIPs must document the authorization, current location, new location, and number of cotton modules moved from each field in a unit. Coverage for the impacted cotton modules may continue to be authorized until such cotton is removed from the new location, not to exceed the end of insurance date contained in the actuarial documents.
INSURANCE COVERAGE NOT ENOUGH
Chopelas said crop insurance alone will not cover the crop losses from Hurricane Harvey. “Insurance will help, but this crop was so good it would take two times the Actual Production History (APH) to cover the 2017 crop. And much of the 2017 crop is gone.”
Bobby McCool, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agent in San Patricio County, saw “massive destruction. A big part of the world here was torn up, but we’re putting things back together one day at a time.”
He says cotton “is a total mess. Modules just blew away. The crop had all been harvested and was in modules waiting to be picked up because the gin yards were packed. It was the best crop we’ve seen in this area, with fields averaging more than three bales and some making four. That’s one-third more cotton than we’ve ever made. That’s an estimate.”
He adds to the praise for round bale modules. “Most of those are salvageable. They fared well if they did not stay in water very long. We saw a few that swelled and busted. The tarped, rectangular modules took a big hit. Cotton is blown all over, covering fences and trees. It’s a mess.”
McCool doesn’t expect to see much livestock loss in the county. “So far, we haven’t heard of a lot of losses.” He anticipates heavier losses in other areas, and anticipates an immediate need for emergency hay and other feed.
“We have a supply point here in Sinton for animal feed, but we encourage folks to call a special number if they need feed or have feed (or other items) to donate. We don’t have the resources here to arrange transport.” That number is 979-845-7800. McCool says if the number is busy for long periods of time, interested parties may call his office, 361-587-3400, but only if necessary. “Call the first number.”
He says the area remains without power. Some places have just gotten water back.
Niemann says the storm was devastating and the residents will be months, maybe years, recovering and rebuilding. “But the volunteers in these small town have been amazing,” he says. He mentions a store owner who brought in a generator before the hurricane, realizing that people would be hungry following the storm, and that many would have nothing available.
“His store is made of thick concrete block, so he knew the structure would stand, maybe without a roof, but he could keep food fresh and available.”
Niemann says others showed up with front-end loaders, chainsaws and just their bare hands to help clean up. “One volunteer left his own property to help others,” he says. “When he got back to his house, the tree limbs had been cut and logs stacked. He didn’t know who to thank.
“People were just eager to help.”