States developing plans to prepare and recover from natural disasters
for The Fence Post
Natural disasters are unavoidable, but states are finding ways to help agricultural producers deal with the aftermath. Although most states have some kind of disaster plan in place, many times they aren’t fully developed until a natural disaster happens.
Tommy Bass, who is a livestock environment associate specialist with Montana State University, said as a delegate for the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), he is able to share ideas, knowledge, resources and disaster education with colleagues from other states.
EDEN is a national, territorial and international organization. “It enhances the power of response, and adds depth to extension programming. It inspires program ideas because we get to see what other states go through when there is a natural disaster. It allows us to develop better intellectual and educational mutual aid,” he said.
EDEN has helped Montana officials develop the Strengthening Community Agrosecurity Preparedness or S-CAP program. “We have benefited from other national experiences, and national delegates have come here and educated us by sharing their experiences,” Bass said.
The end goal is developing a plan for disaster response, whether it is a flood or fire, or a train accident. “Through S-CAP, we have developed a plan and deployment. We also hold training and evacuation exercises,” he said.
A livestock rescue and extrication plan has been developed, in case of a truck accident. “Your first instinct when that happens is to just cut the fence and let the animals that survived into the pasture, but that creates a biosecurity issue. This plan addresses that, as well as human and animal safety, welfare, proper euthanasia practices and containment,” Bass said.
Texas is still addressing recovery efforts, after a major hurricane in 2017 caused flooding and catastrophic damages. Ron Gill, an extension livestock specialist with Texas A&M University, said procedures are in place at state, regional and county agencies who work under the Texas Animal Health Commission, which is the lead agency for animal-related issues.
Each of the 154 counties in Texas have extension personnel trained to assist county emergency management coordinators in animal-related issues. Four extension livestock specialists also serve on the state’s animal response team, and 40 county extension agents are on the state’s seven agricultural strike teams. These people have been through emergency management training, and help keep communications open between agencies about animal health. “We also have extension people devoted to helping with drought issues, like landscape and the home use of water, which can become contaminated after a flood. We had to do a lot of water well testing after Hurricane Harvey,” Gill said.
Every county in the state has a hurricane preparedness guide, which tells people where to go if they need to evacuate. Agricultural producers and companion animal owners can also call 2-1-1 to locate state shelters, where their animals may be housed after being rescued. “One area we need to address is identification for displaced livestock that hasn’t been branded or ear tagged,” he said.
Texas has a EDEN program, which helps them with mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Gill said they are currently addressing the recovery aspect of the plan. “Since the flooding, there are still a lot of areas with debris that hasn’t been cleaned up. We have a big role in recovery, especially after flooding, and other disasters like fire,” he said.
During Hurricane Harvey, 2.1 million head of livestock were displaced. The state was overcome with questions of where to relocate that many animals, as well as the impossible logistics of moving 40 cows per truck. “There were no acres or facilities available to handle that many animals,” Gill said. “In some cases, our only choice was to move them to the highest spots, but sometimes that wasn’t even enough. They were still standing in 4 to 5 feet of water.”
Many producers returned after the disaster to find fences down that could take months to replace, as well as buildings, facilities and equipment destroyed. “In some cases, the infrastructure was torn up so badly that those ranches were forced to sell out because they had no place to keep their animals,” he said.
“We need to develop a better plan to help us assess their needs and mobilize resources to help, We also need to better coordinate and distribute donated products throughout the disaster area. It can be a challenge to get feed to animals that can’t be relocated or moved.”
Carl Dahlen, North Dakota State University beef extension specialist, said the 2017 drought had severe implications for ranchers and their animals. “There was a shortage of feed, a shortage of water and quality issues for both,” Dahlen said. “There were also many program and policy issues, and all that put together made for an extremely stressful situation for everyone.”
“It is a unique time when the agricultural economy itself is down, commodity prices are down, and a lot of outstanding loans are out there,” he said. “There are a lot of questions regarding operating loans moving forward, and add to that the stress of a drought.”
North Dakota has focused on getting a team together, made up of extension personnel, as well as representatives from various local, state and national agencies. Representatives from North Dakota’s congressional delegation and the governor’s office also served on the team. “What we did was have weekly meetings to share information, current conditions, the future outlook, program and policy updates, and needs and discovery. We posted this information on the drought website,” Dahlen said.
“The biggest learning curve in all of this has been developing a real appreciation for the experience each person on the team has. Everyone brings something different, and once we have that understanding, we can really move forward. We want to broaden our network using a holistic approach,” he said.
As a result of the drought, Dahlen said extension personnel have had the opportunity to become better educated by conducting research to provide producers with much needed answers. One area of research was nitrate poisoning that was killing cattle. Nitrates had accumulated in the plants from drought stress. “If we didn’t have the answers, we would start collecting and analyzing samples to get the answers. It gave us good data moving forward, and an opportunity for extension agent producer interaction,” he said. “Moving forward, we realize there will be lasting implications. But we feel more prepared to answer known questions, and we will be listening for new and developing issues.” ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.