Any Mainland Hit Will Wreak Havoc On Produce Industry: Product, Logistics And Transportation

TAMPA, FL — By 8 p.m. Tuesday Sept. 5, simply the threat of another hurricane in the wake of Harvey’s devastation of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast was enough to have shoppers here and across Florida lining up for gas, water and plywood as pumps were emptied and store shelves left bare at least four days ahead of Irma’s mainland landfall, expected Saturday or Sunday.

By Wednesday afternoon it had become clear Irma’s path would also certainly take it up the East Coast, but drivers still circled gas stations that had no fuel (earlier Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott ordered state law enforcement personnel to accompany fuel trucks on their deliveries), hauled plywood out of Home Depot and waited impatiently for water deliveries at supermarkets and convenience stores.

That scene was repeated across Florida and throughout the Deep South (see below for a state-by-state report) along the path Irma is most expected to take as she treks up the state’s eastern coast, through Southeast Georgia and into the Carolinas. There is also a possibility Irma could take a hard right and soften the blow.

Irma at 8 a.m. Thursday (National Weather Service)

Growers and shippers are preparing for the worst. At sea, Irma formed into the most catastrophic storm ever in the Atlantic, with winds approaching a record 190 mph. (See chart below for Irma’s ranking on the list of the world’s most powerful storms)

In Vero Beach, FL, “It’s chaos – gas lines, traffic, bottled water and supplies wiped clean. Hospitals already feeling the affects. A local guy almost lost an arm yesterday while boarding up, from a falling shutter which severed his shoulder and then he broke his back falling in the process,” Kim Flores, director of marketing for Seald Sweet International, reported Wednesday afternoon.

No luck at the pump come Wednesday afternoon in Tampa. (Photo by Chip Carter)

“We are taking all the necessary preparations. The safety of our employees is our #1 priority. We are hopeful the storm continues to track east so that our state — and the citrus crop — is spared the brunt. The Florida citrus industry doesn’t need another disaster on top of the struggles with disease.”

Southeast Growers, Shippers Batten Down The Hatches

As a Category 5 with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, Irma now ranks among the most powerful hurricanes (as measured by wind speed) ever recorded. Irma has sustained these 185 mph winds for more than 24 hours, a record length of time, and has maintained winds in excess of 180 mph longer than any storm on record. And it’s one of the most powerful cyclones to ever make landfall.

On Wednesday, the fierce storm hit the leeward (i.e. northeastern) Caribbean islands, moving through Barbuda and St. Martin. Widespread damage to property, homes, and infrastructure on these and other islands was reported. Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told media Barbuda “is totally destroyed — 90 percent at least.”

Several deaths have been reported in the Caribbean in Irma’s wake.

Meanwhile, growers and shippers across the Deep South prepared as best they can.

Stocking up at a Tampa Home Depot. (Photo by Chip Carter)

In Miami, overnight Southeastern distributors the Nickey Gregory Company announced their satellite operation just off the Miami market will be closed Friday-Monday; the Atlanta headquarters will continue to make deliveries throughout the rest of the Southeast.

Gregory’s fleet has continued transport to and from Florida unabated so far; two of those trucks carried nothing but water to help with the emergency and any extra room on Gregory’s southbound trucks was also packed with bottled water. Some of that is already on the way to the Caribbean as an additional relief effort on top of Gregory’s regular export trade.

The company will send trucks to Jacksonville in one last Florida run Thursday night; traffic snarls are already making it difficult to get out of Florida. Deliveries in the rest of the region will not be affected.

Brakelights on the horizon: Drivers flee South Florida via I-75 at midday Wednesday (Photo by Chip Carter)

“We’re going a little bit light, mainly because we’ve got trucks from this morning that are trying to get out of Florida. One driver unloaded last night and got up this morning and he’s still at Wildwood because of traffic on I-75,” said company President Nickey Gregory. “We’re going to close Miami tomorrow at noon and we will be closed until Tuesday morning really; hopefully we will be able to go in Monday and asses how we are looking. It’s definitely tracking this way. We are not going to get out of the path of it.”

In Pompano Beach, Ayco Farms announced it will be ceasing operations Sept. 8-12 but pledged to coordinate “with our truckers to keep them safe, while supplying our customers to the best of our ability. At this time, we are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best results.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam urged those in Irma’s path to heed evacuation orders. Some, it seems, are reluctant to leave behind pets. Putnam says there are options available to help out there as well.

“Don’t stay behind and ignore evacuation orders just because you don’t want to leave Fido. There are pet and animal-friendly options available, and now is the time to do your research,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam.

Go to the state’s Hurricane Irma webpage for help with huyman or animal related matters.

Farmers Wait And Worry In The Carolinas

In South Carolina, which has been ravaged by foul weather for four years running, growers prepared for another hit.

While there’s “not really” much more that can be done than worry and wait, Clemson University Extension expert Tony Melton said growers are doing what they can.

Drivers circle a Tampa gas station in a frustrating hunt for fuel. (Photo by Chip Carter)

“In fields you work on surface drainage; many people think drain tiles will help but that takes too long for vegetables,” Melton said. “I’ve had a lot of calls on greenhouses. If It looks like it going to be bad take the plastic off if nothing or very little is inside. It’s better to lose plastic than the structure. And you can off-set stack hanging baskets or flats on end in a strong permanent structure until it’s over, but still be able to get out quickly.”

In North Carolina, “We’ve been monitoring the storm and growers are prepping for it,” said Tommy Fleetwood from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “Sweet potato harvest is under way so growers are doing their best to get as much as possible in the storage. Fall crops are being transplanted; cabbage, collards, kale, romaine is still underway. Corn growers have been harvesting record yield crop and that is still underway.”

In Raleigh, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler reinforced Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Orders waiving restrictions on transporting agricultural products.

“Hurricane Irma is a formidable storm that could result in severe economic loss of livestock, poultry and crops in our state. At my recommendation and as allowed by state law, the Governor has directed the Department of Public Safety to temporarily suspend weighing vehicles used to transport livestock, poultry, feed and crops in the state,” Troxler said Thursday afternoon.

Sonny Beauchamp, Caribbean Area Division (CAD) Chief of Operations welcomes members of the Virginia USAR Water Rescue, HAZMAT and collapsed structures SMEs. They have been deployed to Puerto Rico to provide assistance during Hurricane Irma (FEMA Photo/Omar Rodriguez)

“This Executive Order will allow our farmers the opportunity to harvest as much of their crops as possible before the storm hits. The order also temporarily suspends the maximum hours of service for drivers.

“I urge everyone to prepare for this storm. Check your generators, fuel and emergency kits. We don’t know what impact this storm will have yet on our state. But we do know that preparation saves lives and protects property.”

South Georgia Farmers: Not Much To Do Except Pray

“We don’t know what to do. One minute we have no threat and the next minute we do. So we’re not sure what to do; of course there is nothing we can do other than try and prepare,” Walt Dasher of G&R Farms in Glennville, GA, a major grower of Vidalia onions in the deep Southeastern part of the state, said Wednesday afternoon. “We don’t have any crops in the ground that can get hurt. We are preparing our land for planting seed beds; we don’t need heavy rain because it will wash away our beds and dirt really bad. Thank God we don’t have any of the seed planted yet, that can be extremely expensive, to the tune of $12,000-$13,000 per acre expensive for seed cost. We pray it is going to make a east hard turn for everyone.”

Irma’s most likely path. (National Weather Service)

“Most folks are in a wait and see attitude… it may or may not turn,” said Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association Thursday morning. “It could be upsetting to our pecan crop again, we just don’t know yet. And there’s not much you can do to prepare, except pray.”

The Southeast Produce Council is in Millen, GA, in the Southeastern part of the state but out of harm’s way.

“We are keeping a close eye on Hurricane Irma and are praying that there is minimal impact for the areas in the path. We hope and pray that people will heed the warnings and start evacuating now if they are in the projected pathway,” said SEPC Executive Director David Sherrod. “Property can be replaced, but lives cannot. Our hometown of Millen is actually on the evacuation route for the coast of Georgia, so we invite anybody who needs a place to stay to stop by and we will roll out the SEPC red carpet for you.”


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