Hurricane Preparedness Refresher For Florida Farmers

Do you remember your last hurricane experience? You probably do, as those kinds of memories can be hard to shake. Can you recall the last time a hurricane made landfall in the Sunshine State? That factoid might be a little harder to conjure up as it has been eight seasons — and counting — since the last hurricane strike: Wilma, which rolled across South Florida in late October 2005. The Category 3 storm caused widespread wind and flood damage, capping off a prolific period of tropical storm activity during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

Hurricane Wilma as it appeared on satellite as it roared across South Florida. Image courtesy of NOAA

Hurricane Wilma as it appeared on satellite roaring across South Florida. Image courtesy of NOAA

While the Atlantic basin has stayed pretty active since then, prevailing winds and climate patterns have steered the larger storms away from Florida. This season, climate experts agree the Atlantic will see “below average” activity. Long range outlooks from Colorado State University, NOAA, and The Weather Channel each expect the number of named storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes to be down compared to recent years. It’s one of the rare cases where being below average is not such a bad thing.

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A major factor for dialing down the heat is the possible development of an El Niño. This climate phase occurs when surface water temperatures in the eastern Pacific are elevated. According to NOAA, this contributes to more eastern Pacific hurricanes and fewer Atlantic hurricanes. La Niña, El Niño’s polar opposite, sets the table for fewer eastern Pacific hurricanes but more Atlantic hurricanes. A Neutral climate phase (what we are currently in as of posting) presents a case of variability. But, with all signs pointing to El Niño arriving sometime this summer, all is well on the East Coast and Gulf Coast region, right? Well … the aforementioned 2004 hurricane season occurred under El Niño conditions. Four landfalls within weeks of each other defined that season for Florida. But even if activity is below average for any given season, all it takes is one to ruin what you have.

Jeff Albritton, vice president of Stallings Crop Insurance Corp., says while there is a danger of growers being lulled into a false sense of security if they haven’t been directly affected by an adverse event, other factors come into play when it comes down to coverage. “The hurricanes did have a large initial impact on growers’ thought processes when it came to crop insurance,” he says. “There were some increases in coverage in the few years that followed, but then leveled back off to growers accessing each of their risk on the merit of their crop type, particular threats, and the economy. Today, growers’ decisions are driven more by the value of the crop and the cost of inputs to get to market, and the value once that get it there. Depending on the type of crop a farmer grows, they do a benefit analysis on the value of crop insurance to their operation. The fact that farmers also are having to stretch a dollar much farther to bring their crops to market, also plays a large factor in the overall decision-making process.”

That Was Then, This Is Now

Albritton encourages growers to vet all their options and consider some new types of financial protection tools that have surfaced in the past several years including weather derivatives as well as USDA-based plans Adjusted Gross Revenue (where available) and Adjusted Gross Revenue-Lite. “Bottom line, make sure your agents know what they are talking about and knows all the options available.” In addition, Albritton points out to be aware that crop insurance is now directly linked to any other possible payments through the USDA Supplemental Revenue Assistance Programs (SURE). “The SURE program was put into place several years ago essentially combining all agricultural disaster relief into one program. When this was done, one of the program requirements was that a grower must have their crops insured with crop insurance (if available) to qualify for payments through the SURE program,” Albritton adds. “I would caution each grower to check with their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office to make certain that their current risk management strategy complies with the requirements necessary to receive assistance through SURE if needed.”

Long Before The Storm

If you feel out of practice with hurricane preparedness, a refresher might serve yourself and your operation well. The Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association and Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers compiled some helpful dos and don’ts to consider before and after a storm.
• Clear ditches free of weeds and debris so maximum drainage can occur. Make sure your interior roads are in good repair to allow access to all areas of your farming operation.
• Make sure all windows, doors, siding, and roofing are secured according to building codes. If you have portable sheds and trailers, tie them down securely. Evaluate whether you should remove covering of greenhouses and shade structures prior to a storm. Inventory whether you have sufficient materials to minimally repair facilities.
• All equipment should be serviced and have adequate supplies on hand. For days to weeks after a hurricane, normal deliveries may be disrupted. Plan to have fuel and other supplies you may need. Consider having minimal building materials on hand to repair structures. Evaluate all your potential production needs. Make sure you have a supply of fertilizer and crop protection materials.
• Make arrangements for power. Power lines may be disabled for days or weeks jeopardizing your irrigation systems. Develop a plan for irrigation, running office functions, running propagation areas, etc.
• Confirm you have crop insurance. Crop insurance is a requirement to participate in any federal disaster programs. You must sign up for the program well before a storm threatens, because there is a 30-day hold.

Immediately Before The Storm

• Secure all loose items, nursery containers, stakes, etc. Tie down everything possible. Store and secure all equipment in an area less likely to be damaged.
• Have emergency numbers handy. Make sure you have the numbers of your crop and property insurance agents, USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and FSA, local police, fire, and other emergency contacts.
• Inventory your plants and equipment. This will help in the event you need to file a claim or determine the damage you have. Also, it will allow recovery of some lost items. Consolidate the serial numbers on your equipment
• Establish a means to communicate with your employees. Your employees will need to know what you expect of them after the storm.

Assessing After The Storm

• Make any necessary repairs to your structures so they are secure from the weather and intrusion.
• Take care of your plant material. Irrigate to flush any salt residue. Replant any material needing it. Prune to correct any damage.
• Notify the proper authorities in the event of storm damage (e.g, road obstructions, power outages, water, sewer or gas line breaches).
• If necessary, notify disaster assistance agencies of your needs. If you have crop insurance, you may qualify for disaster assistance or low cost loans.
• As quickly as possible, let your customers know how well you survived the storm and when you anticipate servicing their accounts.
• Photograph and document damage before you start the cleanup process.

Avoid Crop Insurance Confusion

Albritton admits that the ins and outs of crop insurance can be quite confusing. He does have some advice for those trying to navigate through the clutter. “The reporting requirements and administrative paperwork associated with the program can seem excessively burdensome on a grower,” he says. “This is where a grower needs to have a knowledgeable and dedicated agent to assist them through the process. You cannot go online and purchase crop insurance like auto insurance and just keep renewing every year. There are annual reporting requirements, as well as mid-year reporting on certain crops that all have to be accomplished timely and correctly. If you have the right agent that knows your crops, the policy and the requirements allowing the grower the comfort of knowing that at the time of a claim, they will be paid what’s due in accordance with what they purchased.”