The night before the storm: Waiting for Idalia

August 29, 2023

When Hurricane Hermine made landfall on Cedar Key, Florida, as a Category 1 hurricane in 2016, it brought 8 feet of water under Jack Payne’s two-story home on 12-foot pilings.

Tropical Storm Idalia is expected to be a Category 3 hurricane when it makes landfall on Cedar Key tomorrow. Payne, Ph.D., faculty advisor to the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group and former Senior Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, no longer lives on the island covering just more than 2 square miles south of the Suwannee River Basin. But, if he did, he says Idalia would likely bring water into his home. Forecasters predict storm surges of up to 15 feet.

“Many, many homes will be lost,” says Payne, who still has friends and FLCSA work in the area.

Cedar Key is a critical location for FLCSA’s Healthy Farms, Healthy Bays initiative. Payne helped build the Nature Coast Biological Station there, a UF/IFAS research station focused on marine and saltwater wetlands—and the island’s $30 million per year clam industry.

At only 2 feet above sea level, Cedar Key is ideal for clam and oyster farming. The surrounding area is composed largely of family farms. The Healthy Farms-Healthy Bays initiative is building relationships between upstream farmers and downstream aquaculturists to ensure both have the clean water and land they need to be productive. 

A mandatory evacuation will hopefully save lives from Idalia, Payne says, but no one knows what kind of damage they will find when they return to Cedar Key.

The hurricane will likely destroy oyster and clam beds, and aqauculturists will have to ensure the water is clean and conducive for marine life before they can get their businesses back up and running. Farmers and woodlands in the Suwannee River Basin will also be affected. Randall Dasher, a farmer in Suwannee County and FLCSA co-chair, says farmers in the area have about 90% of their corn harvested but expect to lose peanuts in low-lying areas. Dasher is most worried about his greenhouses.

Even at his home 50 miles inland, Payne is preparing for the hurricane to bring up to 120 mile-per-hour wind gusts. One of the main reasons he moved inland was because, as a trained scientist, he saw the data and felt vulnerable with his only home being so close to the coast.

“The odds of a catastrophic event are increasing dramatically,” Payne says. “You saw what happened last year with Ian. Instead of having a bad hurricane every few years in different parts of Florida, we’re having them all the time now. And they’re bigger. The winds are higher and more fierce and damaging.”

This trend—and storm—reaffirms the importance of what FLCSA is doing: helping Florida farmers, foresters and aquaculturists build greater resilience as they face new and old challenges to production. Things like urban sprawl, water quality, profitability and a changing climate.

“It’s a lot easier to repair an ecosystem with higher biodiversity and with more of its natural components functioning as an agroforestry ecosystem,” Payne says. 

We at Solutions from the Land are keeping everyone Florida in our thoughts and prayers. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we do know that the work Florida farmers, foresters and aquaculturists are doing through FLCSA gives us hope for the future.

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