Florida dairy farmers prepare for Irma’s fury
September 8, 2017
Friday, Aug. 13, 2004, is a day Florida dairy farmer, Joe Wright will never forget. That's when Hurricane Charley reached his farm.
"I will remember (that day) the rest of my life," he says. "(Hurricane) Jeanne came through three weeks later. Frances came through three weeks after Jeanne."
For the Wrights, Charley was "by far the worst" hurricane they have experienced. Lightning hit their main well turbine so they had no water to wash the milk tank even with an adequate backup generator. The wooden buildings on their farm were gone, steel and concrete buildings had walls left standing, but many roofs were either completely or partially missing. Hurricane Charley made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with wind speeds of 150 mph.
As Hurricane Irma approaches Florida, dairy farmers there are preparing for the worst. While it's still too soon to know where Irma will hit, most computer models have it reaching the Sunshine State this weekend. Irma is a storm of huge magnitude and has the potential to make landfall as one of the biggest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, according to the National Hurricane Center. NOAA anticipates Irma to maintain wind speeds up to 175 mph. Speeds of that caliber have the potential to devastate much of Florida.
No stranger to hurricanes and tropical storms, producers in the southeast know what steps to take to ride out the storm. Wright says the most important factors are water, fuel and a plan to keep everyone safe.
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"You have to have a plan to get employees home to families as they eye of the hurricane approaches, then a plan to get employees back as soon as it's safe after hurricane-force winds subside," he says.
Keeping employees and cows safe are also the main priority for Kris Rucks of Milking R Dairy Inc.
"Our farm operates almost 24 hours a day to make sure every cow is milked, fed and tended to," she says. "We anticipate and are preparing for hours, if not days, of being very limited on how we operate and care for everyone here at Milking R."
During a disaster like a hurricane, cell phone towers are either missing or taken over by first responders, so Wright also says it's critical to have a communication plan.
"For us that includes having multiple vehicles full of fuel so we can round up people and drive several hours for parts we cannot get local," he says.
Keeping the Power On
Not only do buildings sustain damage but the equipment necessary to operate a dairy farm is also likely to sustain damage from the high winds and copious amounts of water. Florida dairy farmer Ben Butler says generators that are tested and ready to operate are a must.
"Generators are necessary to milk cows in case of electricity outages. Like many farmers, we test our generator under a load every month, to keep it fresh," he says. "We will run all night with the generator under a load, to provide one final test before we fuel it up for Hurricane Irma."
Butler also plans to move their cows out of free-stall barns and out to pasture as the storm approaches to keep cows further away from flying debris. He plans to house their calves in an enclosed barn, safe from the wind and rain.
Wright says farmers in the area are pumping down their lagoons as the storm approaches to help mitigate spills. He remembers the damage their buildings sustained in 2004, so they have placed large equipment around their office building to protect it from damage.