By: Paul Rusnak

Updated Oct. 11, 2016, 3:11 p.m.

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When NOAA released its revised Atlantic hurricane forecast in August, it was predicted the second half of the season would experience heightened activity. So far, the forecast has been spot on — and then some.

Following an 11-year period with no direct hurricane strikes, Florida not only saw the streak broken with the landfall of Category 1 rainmaker Hermine in early September, but is now recovering from significant impacts left behind by Hurricane Matthew, a major storm that also caused havoc in Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas.

Though the eye of the storm did not make landfall in Florida, the major hurricane ground its way up the East Coast of the Sunshine State, lashing areas with damaging winds, copious amounts of rain, and devastating storm surge. Coastal areas from Daytona Beach northward to Jacksonville were particularly pounded hard by the surge, which caused major flooding.

Bonnie Cook Wells, a UF/IFAS Commercial Agriculture Extension Agent based in St. Johns County, spent Monday morning performing assessments. Approximately 1,100 acres of crops were impacted by the damaging winds and rainfall in the county, Wells reports. “We had more than 10 inches of rain in the Hastings area with very strong winds,” she says.

On average, St. Johns County farmers have reported 30% to 60% losses of their planted acreage, while several have experienced a 100% or total loss for the crops they had in the ground before the storm, Wells states. “The Asian vegetables in the area were hit really hard, and so were the snap beans. Other crops lost include mustard greens, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, squash, beets, and more. But, a few fields of cabbage and cauliflower look like they might bounce back. We will have to see in a week or so. And then, the crops that do make it, I am expecting worse than usual disease pressure.”

According to Wells, losses are estimated at least $1.6 million for Asian vegetables and snap beans alone. In addition, she notes structural damage to greenhouses and other farm structures resulted from the storm, and the soggy grounds have delayed planting of much of the area’s fall crops.

When inquiring about how the state’s citrus crop fared, especially in the Indian River region, Andrew Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual says the sector came through in pretty good shape. “There was some fruit drop on the East Coast, but nothing catastrophic. The fact the storm never made landfall really helped us.”

Doug Bournique, Executive Director of the Indian River Citrus League, says at first glance, expectations are for light losses to the crop. “We’re still assessing,” he says. “We’ll truly know (the extent of the damage) in about 10 days. Damage is light compared to what we thought would happen. Everybody is breathing a sigh of relief.”

Beside the fact Matthew’s eye stayed offshore while blowing past Florida, another big difference Bournique points out when comparing this tropical system’s impact to the destruction caused by the multiple hurricane strikes of 2004 (Frances and Jeanne) and 2005 (Wilma) is the presence of windbreaks — rows of clumping trees strategically planted to break the force of the wind. Before 2004, a lack of windbreaks left groves unprotected. In the last decade, windbreak trees have had time to be planted, grow, and in this case — do their job. “We dodged a really big bullet,” Bournique exclaims.

Following the storm, Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson took an aerial tour with the U.S. Coast Guard to scan the extensive damage from above. The birds-eye view provided perspective to the damage inflicted, most notably the storm surge washout along portions of SR A1A in Flagler and Volusia counties.

While a slightly weaker Matthew crept northward, coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina were inundated with record rains that easily overtook the area’s low-lying, marshy wetlands.

Even though damage assessments are ongoing, early estimates have come in at $4 billion to $6 billion, according to CoreLogic, a global property information and analytics provider.

CoreLogic’s analysis looks at insured property losses for both residential and commercial properties and is based on wind and storm surge damage. This does not include insured losses related to additional flooding, business interruption or contents. Of this $4 billion to $6 billion, 90% of the insurance claims are expected to be related to wind and 10% is expected to be related to storm surge.

When factoring in economic losses and business interruption due to Matthew, the losses could elevate exponentially.

Out ahead of Hurricane Matthew, USDA released a memo for farmers and ranchers, families, and small businesses about several programs the agency has available to provide assistance before, during, and after disasters.

“USDA has offices in nearly every county in the U.S., and we want to remind people that we have a variety of services that may be useful in challenging times like this one,” stated U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

USDA encourages individuals in impact zones to contact the following offices to meet their individual needs:

Crop Loss

The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers many safety-net programs to help producers recover from eligible losses, including the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program, Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP), and the Tree Assistance Program.

The FSA Emergency Conservation Program provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters. Producers located in counties that received a primary or contiguous disaster designation are eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses. Compensation also is available to producers who purchased coverage through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which protects non-insurable crops against natural disasters that result in lower yields, crop losses or prevented planting. USDA encourages farmers and ranchers to contact their local FSA office to learn what documents can help the local office expedite assistance, such as farm records, receipts and pictures of damages or losses.

Producers should use form FSA-576, Notice of Loss, to report prevented planting and failed acres in order to establish or retain FSA program eligibility. Prevented planting acreage must be reported no later than 15 calendar days after the final planting date as established by FSA and USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA). Producers must file a Notice of Loss for failed acres on all crops including grasses in a timely fashion, often within 15 days of the occurrence or when the losses become apparent. Producers of hand-harvested crops must notify FSA of damage or loss within 72 hours of when the date of damage or loss first becomes apparent.

Producers with coverage through the RMA administered federal crop insurance program should contact their crop insurance agent. Those who purchased crop insurance will be paid for covered losses. Producers should report crop damage within 72 hours of damage discovery and follow up in writing within 15 days.

Property And Shelter

When floods destroy or severely damage residential property, USDA Rural Development can assist with providing priority hardship application processing for single family housing. Under a disaster designation, USDA Rural Development can issue a priority letter for next available multi-family housing units. While these programs do not normally have disaster assistance authority, many of USDA Rural Development programs can help provide financial relief to small businesses hit by natural disasters, including low-interest loans to community facilities, water environmental programs, businesses and cooperatives and to rural utilities. More information can be found on the Rural Development website or by contacting the state offices.

This story will be updated as the situation progresses.