Hurricane Rita Victims Lost in Shadow of Katrina With all eyes focused on New Orleans and Mardi Gras, little attention is being paid to communities in southwestern Louisiana trying to recover from Hurricane Rita. In Vermilion Parish, Louisiana farmers struggle to rebuild their businesses and their lives.
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Hurricane Rita Victims Lost in Shadow of Katrina

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Hurricane Rita Victims Lost in Shadow of Katrina

Hurricane Rita Victims Lost in Shadow of Katrina

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. With Mardi Gras celebrations around the corner, all eyes are on New Orleans and how the city's recovering from hurricane Katrina. There's little talk about the other hurricane, Rita, that hit the Gulf Coast just several weeks after Katrina.

In Louisiana's Vermillion Parish, in the heart of Cajun country, nearly 7,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed. Sixty-five percent of farmland and pastures was contaminated with salt water and as NPR's Andrea Hsu found on a visit this week, the parish's farming communities are still reeling from their losses.

ANDREA HSU reporting:

On a chilly winter morning, under a large shed in Abbeville, Louisiana, a sight for sore eyes, stacks and stacks of hay, all of it donations from out of state.

Mr ANDREW GRONGE (ph) (Louisiana State University Agricultural Center): We were given one square bale of hay for every six heads. Not a lot, but they seem to be appreciative of it.

HSU: Andrew Gronge is a county agent with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. He knows most of the farmers in Vermillion Parish and knows their needs.

Mr. GRONGE: This barbed wire, most of the fences went down in the floods and most of the wire is rusting because of the salty water, so got to replace a lot of the wire.

HSU: Cattle rancher Henry Casperski (ph) has his work cut out for him.

Mr. HENRY CASPERSKI (Cattle Rancher, Louisiana): Big time, big time. All my cow pens are pulled up clean out the ground, all my fences and all along the coast, this is just terrible. You know, they act like nothing's going on down here. Nobody say's anything, you know. Everything is Katrina, that's all you hear is Katrina.

Mr. RONALD WINCH (ph) (Farmer, Pecan Island): We just trying to get things back in order to where we can bring our cattle back home.

HSU: Home for Ronald Winch is Pecan Island. Six miles from the Gulf of Mexico. His farm there is nowhere near operable. Last November Winch got a job managing a Hunting Club in Gaden, 30 miles north, and that's were he currently has about a third of his cattle.

WINCH: I've brought 40 head here. We've got cattle scattered between Gaden, Crowley, and Doussan.

HSU: One of his cows looks especially thin, her rib cage plainly visible beneath her black and white hide. Even this far inland the devastation caused by Rita is evident. There are some patches of new grass, but most of the landscape is a dull brown.

WINCH: We had water that tested 250 parts per gallon right here in this pasture, which is seawater, I mean it's Gulf water. And you can see what the saltwater done to it. It's dead. I mean there's nothing left to it.

HSU: Seventeen miles from the coast in Ester, Louisiana, repairs are underway on a hayloft.

Mr. AL LEE (Farmer, Louisiana): This piece has been broke off, we're going to save them to use for branding wood.

HSU: Al Lee is a slight man, with a round boyish face. He is joined by his 64- year old father and a volunteer from Illinois with the Fellowship of Christian Farmers.

Unidentified Man: We're short one board. Did you cut that one?

HSU: Five months after Rita, the Lee farm is still a picture of ruin. A heavy equipment shed looks like it could crumble at any moment, its walls ripped apart by the storm surge. Tractors and big red trucks sit idle, their parts rusted beyond repair. Looking south, the land is bare, its soil too salty for planting and absent are the cattle. Thirty died in the storm along with two horses. The remaining 120 are scattered at friend's farms.

Mr. LEE: We were just as devastated as anybody in Katrina, you know. There won't be any crops planted this year. I mean, as far as for going out and trying to buy new equipment, there's no way possible that we can afford to do that, so.

HSU: So far FEMA has provided Lee with only a small amount of money for damages to his residence. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allocated $2.8 billion for victims of last year's hurricanes. Lee hopes he'll qualify for some of this aid, enough to keep his farm running in Vermillion Parish.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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