Virginia agriculture officials breathing sigh of relief after Florence
RICHMOND, Va. — Millions of Tyson, Perdue and Mountaire chickens inhabiting tin-roof houses along the flood-vulnerable Virginia coast survived Hurricane Florence without so much as getting their feet wet.
The storm instead took a turn for the west, dousing the Piedmont area in as much as 8 inches of rain and igniting a fatal tornado in Chesterfield County near Altria.
Inland waterways overflowed. Showers threatened livestock, soaked grounds and spilled into surrounding waters. Crop loss damages in Mecklenburg County alone were estimated at around $2 million, Farm Bureau Federation District Field Services Director Greg Maxey reported. Flooded tobacco fields represented the greatest crop value left to weather the storm, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
“We dodged a bullet … mostly,” Nelson County Emergency Services Coordinator Russell Gibson said.
Florence landed ashore in Wilmington, N.C. on Friday, Sept. 14 as a Category 1 hurricane with 90 mph winds and embarked west on a torrential crawl across the Carolinas where, as of Wednesday, the death toll was at 31.
Rivers in flooded North Carolina were still rising when Florence, a tropical depression as it ventured north into Virginia on Sunday, exited the state as a low pressure system, according to Wakefield National Weather Service Meteorologist Matt Scalora.
The storm then shed 1 to 3 inches of rain in Maryland and Delaware, Scalora said.
Power outages were at 1 million throughout the East Coast when Florence approached. Of Dominion Energy’s 2.6 million Virginia and North Carolina customers, 129,000 were affected as early as Thursday evening into Tuesday, company spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said.
Outages for Appalachian Power customers began on Sunday and extended into Tuesday, affecting another 12,000 in Virginia, West Virginia and Kingsport, Tenn.
Wakefield National Weather Service as of Wednesday confirmed six Virginia tornadoes, including the Chesterfield County cyclone that killed one person, flattened a warehouse and included a report of injuries. Another in Hanover County downed a utility pole, collapsed a barn and moved bales of hay on to another field. Virginia’s Piedmont region received the most rain, according to Scalora. The cresting Tye River reportedly closed roads and washed away three adults, four children and dogs, all of whom were rescued. The Tye and the Roanoke rivers claimed pumpkins.
Nelson County farmer Henry Fitzgerald said he lost 20 of 150 acres in the Tye flood but that his 600 acres of corn and 600 acres of soybeans edging the James River survived. The pumpkins that didn’t float from his flooded fields were lost to contaminated water, according to the Farm Bureau.
“We were very lucky,” Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Marketing Director Kimley Blanks said. “We’ll have some issues but not like we thought before the storm.
“We have a lot of soybeans, and we’ll need to get the moisture content down.”
Norfolk area residents paddled through streets when the Elizabeth River overflowed.
Accomack County received only 0.19 inches of rain by Monday and was spared flooding, according to County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Doug Jones.
The county produces the state’s largest share of corn and soybeans and was under a coastal flood watch into Friday.
As of Wednesday, only minor coastal flooding occurred in areas such as the Chespeake Bay and south Virginia Beach, where people in an SUV were engulfed but no injuries reported.
Perdue operations throughout Virginia and the Carolinas largely survived the storm intact, Perdue spokesperson Joe Forsthoffer said, citing “no significant damage and very minimal loss of birds.” Only the company’s Rockingham, N.C plant was closed Tuesday because of problems with a wastewater treatment facility, Forsthoffer said.
Tyson Foods live poultry operations in Virginia and North Carolina experienced “minimal impact” from Florence, company spokesperson Worth Sparkman said.
The company was working regionally to help two Fayetteville, N.C. farms to make sure the storm’s effects didn’t disrupt business, Sparkman said.
Southwest Virginia growers such as Juan Whittington of Featherstone Farm Seed in Amelia Court House were prepared for the storm. Whittington said he took in his corn before Florence reached the coast. By Friday, he had his cattle herded away from electric fenced areas and into conventional pastures.
He put the picker away, pulled his heavy equipment in from the field, battened down the grain bin doors and tops and got his generator working.
Florence also arrived during the peak apple harvest season, Floyd County Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Jon Vest said. Farmers there lost livestock to flooding, and initial apple crop loss estimates were at 30 percent or more, Vest said.
Grape producers in Floyd County were in the middle of harvest season or readying for it, and “this type of rain almost ruins the sugar levels” and causes “rotting issues beyond our control,” Vest said. Sugar levels, he suggested, could be affected by the saturation, he said.
Shirley Archer of Bright Meadows Vineyard & Winery in Nathalie said she brought in grapes before the rain. Orchards experienced some saturation, she said.
“We’re a little behind on picking but, other than that, we’ve done well,” Morgan Drumheller Johnston noted of her family’s 100-acre orchard in Lovingston.
Soybean and tobacco farmer Garland Comer agreed: “Every crop we’ve got put us a week to a week and a half behind because of the storm,” he said.
Peanut farmers dug in advance of Florence, and sweet potato growers stopped harvesting temporarily, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Director of Communications Elaine Lidholm said.
Virginia Beach, largely abandoned when Florence approached, felt the most immediate impacts. The storm, dissipated from its Category 4 start, pummeled the coast with 90 mph winds. Atlantic waters rushed into the Rudee Inlet, a dining, fishing and watersports hub in Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront District.
Chris Lundford farms oysters in what he described as a protected area of the Virginia Beach coast and so his stock, he said, wasn’t as affected as it could have been. Demand was nevertheless off because of restaurant closures; fresh water runoff is delaying harvest until around Sept. 24, Lundford said.
Florence was at that time “largely a non-event for the Chesapeake Bay area,” Virginia Institute of Marine Science News and Media Director David Malmquist said Monday. “We had higher tides a few days before than we had during the storm itself.”
Emergency officials within 24 hours of Florence’s arrival lifted its tropical storm warning for coastal Virginia, and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam lifted mandatory evacuations for parts of Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore, Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Hurricane evacuation shelters were closed, and some 52 people returned to their residences.
Florence by then was on a westward path through North Carolina, and Virginia’s Emergency Operations Center shifted its attention to the southwest region of the state, cautioning residents there to prepare for the storm’s impacts and expect flooding.
Florence crawled through North Carolina at 2 mph and with maximum sustained 50 mph winds.
Rains remained unrelenting, even as Florence was downgraded to a post-tropical storm cyclone.
The National Weather Service on Sunday warned of a “catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding risk” in the region and in the Carolinas. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam cautioned southwest Virginia residents to prepare for flooding and possible landslides into Wednesday. The Dan and James Rivers were under National Weather Service flood warnings into Wednesday and Thursday.
Lynchburg officials kept watch on the College Lake Dam in case storm flooding concerns prompted evacuations. Coastal flood advisories were in effect for Accomack County and the Chesapeake area into Friday.
Norfolk, Va., residents before the storm were told by people dressed in fluorescent vests and representing themselves as city workers that they must leave evacuation zones, a city official told The Virginian-Pilot.
The spokesperson clarified that the people were not city employees and said that the city does not force evacuations.
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