When disaster strikes (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture.)
The almost unimaginable became stark reality in a matter of 15 seconds when a tornado, sparked by the remnants of Hurricane Ida making their way to New Jersey, touched down and destroyed local homes, farms and businesses in Gloucester County on Wednesday, Sept. 1.
Before that time, previous warnings that such an event could happen were met often with skepticism that such cataclysmic results would strike a state like New Jersey.
The kind of tornado activity usually associated with Kansas or Oklahoma, we now know, is here to stay for us in the Northeast as well.
We must prepare better, harden our assets, and create programs that match the realities that were driven home in this tornado’s aftermath.
The concepts often talked about, like climate change and sustainability, are now front and center and must be addressed by looking at them squarely and with eagle-eyed focus.
This isn’t just about freakishly destructive activity like a tornado.
Our state’s already water-saturated landscape was even further drenched with unprecedented inches of rainfall in a record amount of time from Ida’s remnants.
Three inches an hour or more — like Ida brought to some areas of Somerset and Passaic counties — will most likely happen again, and probably sooner rather than later.
These twin assaults of tornadoes and flooding rains played havoc with wild abandon and towns, cities and hamlets were randomly affected by the ravage that nature can conjure up at any given time.
When I walked onto the two most damaged farms in my county, it was hard to describe the magnitude of what these families had to endure while assessing the damage — figuring out what they have that is operable and functioning, and determining what they needed to do just to exist while in a state of almost delirium.
Because most farm families live on the same land where they make their living, the challenges to get up and running are even greater than most people would understand as reality.
When someone has a business housed in an office or store in New Jersey, it is rare that they also make their home on that same property.
In the case of our local dairy and grain farm here in my home county of Gloucester, the farmers woke up to 1,000-plus cows having no barns left in which to reside.
They were scattered into the woods.
Storage tanks and silos that held silage were toppled.
There was no electric, no Internet or cable for communications, and no cover for the livestock.
Could there be a more challenging scenario for the breakdown of anyone waking up to this after having their life’s work (this is a three-generation operation) come literally crashing into a heap of twisted metal, splintered timber, and flattened infrastructure.
And yet, as the sun rose, the work began.
It was not only on this dairy farm, but also on a nearby vegetable producer, which suffered similar devastation from the very same tornado.
Some farms in the central and northern parts of the state reported standing water of around a foot, so they had damage of another type to contend with.
In all these cases, we heard stories of fellow farmers, friends, and family springing into action.
It could bring tears to your eyes how the best side of human nature emerged, and it restores one’s faith to see these folks pulling together without even being asked.
However, with all that people want to do and did do, there are areas that need attention and only the institutions of both business and government can address.
The gaps must be filled and we must begin to ask the questions of how to build better for our state’s family farms to get prepared for these situations that are rising to the fore.
There are many fine programs within the USDA which currently exist to help farmers better manage and deal with risk, by pinpointing tolerances and managing reward.
Our friends at FEMA, too, have many great programs, but they are more often related to homes than to farm businesses.
And while many farmers will tell you they can’t absorb, at times like this, yet another loan to pay back, some manner of bridging the gap to help them rebuild and get back to “normal” operations must exist while these farmers haggle with their insurance companies, try to meet the demands of their regular customers, and continue obtaining the supplies they need.
Power companies also must recognize that when a farm is devastated in this way, some help must be provided, perhaps in the form of emergency generators, that goes beyond keeping the farm updated on how many days it will be before power is restored.
Yes, the farm is most often the site of the farmer’s home as well. But these businesses that provide the basics of survival for so many people must be assured that they can survive devastation when nature brings it to their door.
Given the likelihood that our area will see more tornadoes, flooding, and other violent storm damage than it has in past generations, we must better prepare for when disaster strikes.
Cows have to be milked. Crops need to be gathered. Products must be stored. Farms provide some unique circumstances like no other operations.
The next federal Farm Bill, I am hopeful, will include more provisions for both responding to and preparing for what used to be rare natural disasters in our area that are now being encountered on a more regular basis.