National News

'Right dead in the heart': Farmers fear losses

Posted October 10, 2018 11:08 a.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- Before he laid down to sleep Monday night, Phil Buckhalter, a 57-year-old southwest Georgia peanut and cotton farmer, said his best prayers -- for his farm and family, and for everyone expected to be in the path of Hurricane Michael.

When he awoke Tuesday, with a pit growing in his stomach, the fast-moving storm's projected path looked much as it had a day before: Forecasters feared it would make landfall around early afternoon Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane, with winds between 130 and 156 mph, before barreling through southwest and central Georgia.

The forecasts led Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a state of emergency in 92 counties -- all counties south of Muscogee, Jones and Warren, which includes the whole of South Georgia and much of central Georgia.

In addition to the typical fears of power outages, property damage and flooding, Michael's projected path set it on a course to pound some of the state's key agricultural industries, especially cotton, peanuts and pecans. Asked how bad it could be on the Georgia economy, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black replied, "Devastating is not an overstatement."

Channel 2 Action News said southwest and central Georgia could get 4 to 6 inches of rain, or possibly even more in the southwest. Hurricane and tropical storm warnings were issued for parts of South Georgia, with some southeastern counties also under a flash flood watch.

Buckhalter and other farmers across South Georgia were out all day Tuesday, working at a steady clip to try to clear their fields, lest the crops be damaged or ruined altogether.

Peanuts were in danger because much of the crop had been picked and left out to dry in recent days. With cotton, the fear is it could blow away from bloomed plants, and closed plants might get twisted together, making picking much more difficult.

"It's hitting us right dead in the heart," said Buckhalter. "It could not have come at no worse a time."

Black agreed.

He said the peanut harvest was only about half done statewide, and cotton was far behind that.

"Do the math," the commissioner said. "I'm very comfortable saying there are several hundred thousand acres of cotton in jeopardy."

The timing of Michael caught many off guard across Georgia. Unlike Irma or Florence, there was no long, tense run-up -- only a mad dash as the storm began tearing through the Gulf of Mexico.

The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency on Tuesday activated its special operations center in Atlanta. The center was in "Level 1" operations, its highest level, and planned to stay that way for the foreseeable future, said Catherine Howden, the agency's chief of staff. The agency was working with myriad agencies, including the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and various county and city governments, to coordinate a response.

They were making sure teams are ready for any land and water rescues that may be needed, and ensuring evacuation routes are clear, with storm drains prepared for buckets of rain. Still, to avoid congestion, GDOT urged evacuees to try to avoid interstates and to head northwest out of the storm's path.

Utility workers were preparing to deploy to restore power.

With evacuations in order for some Florida counties, Georgia parks waived camping fees, and Atlanta Motor Speedway opened its campground for free. Two special shelters, one each in the Macon and Columbus areas, were opening Tuesday night.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines cancelled 44 flights scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday and said it planned to move planes to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from Florida airports in Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City and Destin-Fort Walton Beach to protect them.

The Georgia Agriculture Commissioner's office was ready to help relocate any livestock from the storm's path. They were also in contact with grocery and convenience stores to make sure they are prepared for power outages, which could lead to huge amounts of food being spoiled.

Black pointed out that the governor's state of emergency declaration cleared the way for truckers to operate longer hours to get endangered crops out of Michael's way.

But that didn't stop fears.

Atlanta-based Home Depot says it is prepared to help millions that will be affected by Hurricane Michael.

At Birdsong Peanuts, which has fields and shelling plants all over southwest Georgia, Vice President of Manufacturing Gregg Grimsley said the projected storm path runs precisely through the heart of the state's Peanut Belt.

The harvest had been looking good when he left work on Friday. By Monday and into Tuesday, its workers were swamped by efforts to save the peanuts.

Birdsong, though, is a large company with many employees. A farmer such as Buckhalter, who started farming in 1973 with his father, doesn't have that much help. He had just a few pickers in his fields in Early County, racing to do what seemed impossible because it kept raining, forcing them to stop every time they made any progress.

He was sick with worry at the thought of losing the vast majority of his crops, peanut and cotton.

"I'm 57, this is all I've ever done, and it would be a sad day," he said.

He has crop insurance, but it's unlikely to make him whole again. He'd have to see whether the bank could work with him, though he knows they can only do so much.

He tried to hope. And he prayed all day.

"But, hell, maybe it'll blow around and we won't get much rain," he said, sounding dejected as he watched rain already falling.

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Staff writers Kelly Yamanouchi, David Wickert and Ben Brasch contributed to this article.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service