After the storm: Rebuilding after Hurricane Idalia

September 20, 2023

It’s been about three weeks since Hurricane Idalia hit Florida.

The storm made landfall near Keaton Beach, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, as a Category 3 hurricane the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 30. Sustained winds of 125 miles per hour battered homes and businesses, leaving debris and hazardous conditions as the hurricane traveled across the Florida Panhandle into Georgia. Idalia slowed to a tropical storm as it moved into the Carolinas and out to the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday, Aug. 31.

Less than 80 miles south of Keaton Beach is Cedar Key, home to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Nature Coast Biological Station. When we last wrote, Cedar Key was preparing for the storm. Now the fishing community is rebuilding.

Idalia created the largest storm surge (10.69 feet) Cedar Key has seen in more than 100 years, wrote Mike Allen, Ph.D., director of the Nature Coast Biological Station, in a memo to UF/IFAS administration and facilities staff.

The station conducts science and public outreach that can be used to improve the conservation and management of coastal and marine resources. It is also a key location for the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture’s Healthy Farms, Healthy Bays initiative. The station sustained significant damage, especially to its wet lab and dock.

“The best news is that all of our team in Cedar Key are safe,” Allen wrote on Sept. 5, noting that one team member’s home was severely flooded. “With the help of many, we were able to clean out the wet lab and get things organized and ready for reconstruction of the lab.”

The University of Florida is conducting a survey to estimate damages from the storm, but there’s no doubt the hurricane hurt fishers and aquaculture farmers along the coast.

Bobby Witt, a 66-year-old clam farmer in Cedar Key, had “a million and a half hard clams waiting to be harvested next year,” reported the New York Times the day after the storm. Witt was one of several Cedar Key aquaculturists featured in the New York Times article, “After the Storm, a Cherished Local Fishing Industry Feels More Fragile.”

Witt, at the time, needed to retrieve his clam boat, which “was marooned in marshy woods nearby” to check his clam farm. He did not know if his clams were “buried in the mud” or “battered by underwater debris.”

“We’re just going to have to see,” Witt told the New York Times.

Farmers inland were also affected by Hurricane Idalia.

The North Florida Research and Education Center – Suwannee Valley sits about 70 miles inland from Keaton Beach. The center was hit hard, “but not nearly as hard as the region’s farms to our west, between Live Oak and Madison, and south through Lafayette, Levy and Taylor counties,” said Bob Hochmuth, assistant director for the center, on Sept. 5 in an email to UF/IFAS administration.

“The ag infrastructure throughout the core path of Idalia has been seriously compromised if not destroyed,” Hochmuth said. “Yes, we have high crop losses, but it is clearly buildings, barns, pivots, farm equipment, poultry houses, dairy barns, milking parlors, peanut and grain receiving facilities, greenhouses, shops, equipment storage buildings, etc., that have been lost.”

Farmers will need financial assistance to get back on their feet in the short- and long-term, Hochmuth added.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered disaster assistance to Florida farmers and livestock producers impacted by the hurricane, and the Florida Farm Bureau’s Women’s fund is collecting funds to assist farmers and ranchers who suffered agricultural losses.

Hurricane Idalia created a mess for farmers and aquaculturists, but it also created moments in which rural communities came together. As Scott Angle, the University of Florida senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and the UF/IFAS leader, said in a recent article, “The worst of times can bring out the best in us.”

Florida Climate Smart Agriculture is bringing together groups of people who manage and take care of Florida’s land and water, creating new collaborative connections to benefit all as climate change creates new challenges for agricultural and aquacultural production—including but not limited to increasing risks of more frequent, more intense storms.

“This [damage caused by Hurricane Idalia] is on top of an extremely hot summer where our Gulf waters have been hotter than they were for several years,” said Witt in the New York Times article, pointing out another climate challenge.

It’s impossible to prevent natural disaster, but we can, as FLCSA is doing, build resilience in our communities and natural resources through agricultural management and collaborations.

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