Hurricanes Deal Sugar Industry a Serious Blow

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Hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit Louisiana's sugar growers hard, flattening and flooding cane fields just as the harvest was to begin. The annual harvest festival was canceled last week — for the first time in memory since World War II. There are fears the storms will adversely impact the sugar industry. Beth Fertig of member station KRVS reports.


On to another business that's trying to get back on its feet after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It's the harvest season for sugarcane, and as Beth Fertig of member station KRVS reports, farmers in coastal Louisiana are still waiting to see how badly their fields were damaged.

BETH FERTIG reporting:

It would be easy for a visitor to mistake some of the sugarcane crops in Jeanerette from marshland. The storm surge from Hurricane Rita flooded the fields, turning them into shallow lakes.

(Soundbite of motor starting)

Mr. GERALD GIBERTO(ph) (Field Manager, MA Patout): The main thing is getting the water out as fast as we can.

(Soundbite of airboat driving away)

FERTIG: Gerald Giberto is the field manager for MA Patout, the oldest working sugar mill in the United States. He's taking an airboat to conduct one of his daily inspections of the cane fields following Hurricane Rita. Right after the storm, he says, the water was over six feet high in some places.

Mr. GIBERTO: You couldn't see no green at all. This was a solid lake. You couldn't see no--you couldn't see none of the cane all the way up to the front. It's finally gone down over three foot.

FERTIG: Giberto carries a stick with him to measure the depth of the water; it varies between one and three feet. Some wildlife has even washed in from the bayous.

Mr. GIBERTO: I've seen some shrimp. I saw a crab swimming the other day; alligators, snakes, raccoons, nutria...

NEIL(ph): I've even seen crabs.

Mr. GIBERTO: ...beavers. And there's plenty--there's fish that all washed in.

(Soundbite of pump)

FERTIG: Workers are draining the fields with a portable pump connected to a tractor. The storm surge came from the Vermillion Bay, just off the Gulf Coast, so they're sending it back.

Mr. GIBERTO: It's going to go in this bayou on the other side, which goes out eventually to the bay and the Gulf eventually through all kind of little bayous.

FERTIG: No one knows yet how much of this year's crop will be salvaged.

Mr. WILSON LeBLANC (Vice President, MA Patout): I talked to one of the consultants. He says about 15 to 20 percent of the crop is damaged--in Iberia and Vermillion Parish, at least 15 to 20 percent of the crop.

FERTIG: Wilson LeBlanc is vice president of MA Patout. He's been working at this company for 46 years, ever since he graduated high school. LeBlanc says he's never seen damage like the kind inflicted by Rita. It's not just the water that's killing the crops, he says. It's the salt.

Mr. LeBLANC: No one has ever experienced, in all the days that I've been here, that saltwater intrusion like we've had this storm here, this last storm. Never in the history of Louisiana that anybody has known to have that kind of--that much saltwater intrusion.

FERTIG: Louisiana produces about 20 percent of all sugar grown in the United States. This sugar mill has been around since 1829. But LeBlanc says any losses could be devastating. The industry has complained loudly about new competition from the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and it's taken a huge hit from the rising cost of fuel. The factory at MA Patout is quiet now. No mills are running; just the air compressors. Plant manager Will Lejean(ph) says he has no idea when things will be up and running.

Mr. WILL LEJEAN (Plant Manager, MA Patout): Our first starting date was the 26th, which was this past Monday. Then it got pushed back a week because of Katrina, and it'll probably get pushed back at least another week due to Rita. Right now our start-up date is October 10th, and that's kind of late for the amount of cane that we need to process.

FERTIG: So right now all they can do is wait for the cane to dry.

(Soundbite of motor)

FERTIG: As Gerald Giberto and his brother, Neil, navigate the flooded fields on their boat, workers dig open the dirt of another levee to let the water drain.

Mr. GIBERTO: How many openings has it got? Three or four?

NEIL: Four.

FERTIG: Giberto says the water is going down slowly.

Mr. GIBERTO: We're making progress, more and more each day.

FERTIG: After two major hurricanes, that's the best anyone can hope for here on the Gulf Coast. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in Lafayette, Louisiana.

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