The wind died down around 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29. In that lull, Mississippi dairyman Bucky Jones scrambled out to the barn to milk his 80 Holsteins.
“I thought maybe we were home free,” Jones said of Hurricane Katrina’s fury.
But the violent storm returned.
Out in the barn, Jones watched anything that wasn’t buckled down or attached to something go flying in the 100-mile-an-hour winds.
And the 65-year-old farmer is not ashamed to admit it: He was scared.
“I’ve never seen one like this.”
When Hurricane Katrina marched north from the Gulf Coast, she tromped through the highest populated dairy counties in both Mississippi and Louisiana.
When she knocked out power, dairymen had to dump milk for up to five days in some areas before generators made it into the region. Some ran out of feed and couldn’t get more; some couldn’t milk their cows at all. Milk processing plants were down, with no electricity or water, for several days.
Jones had to dump milk from seven milkings and, even when he shipped his first load, it was rejected at the plant as too warm and had to be dumped, too.
After the hurricane’s furor subsided, trees and debris clogged the roads, preventing milk haulers from reaching farms, or farmers getting out. Although milk pickup started to resume by week’s end, some producers had to dump milk because they couldn’t store more than two days’ worth of milk.
Even farmers with generators quickly faced a shortage of diesel fuel to run them. In many cases, overloaded generators created power surges that damaged milking equipment, or the generators themselves burned up.
Jones’ son-in-law lost his generator the second day it was running, so for several days, Jones shuttled his generator 22 miles to milk his son-in-law’s 300-head herd once a day.
The longer the power stayed off, the more desperate the need for diesel fuel. By the time Jones got 160 gallons from a tanker shipment coordinated by Dairy Farmers of America, he was “running on fumes.” Another day, and his generator would have been silent.
“I would’ve paid $10 a gallon,” Jones said. “This is really a very stressful situation.”
Jones, whose farm is 100 miles from the coast, said his farm was on the hurricane’s “weak” side. But the force was anything but weak, ripping up 100-year-old oak trees, roofs, blasting Jones’ equipment shed and commodity shed.
Looking around after the hurricane subsided, Jones describes his farm as, quite simply, “a disaster area.”
But after traveling to every DFA milk producer in a six-county region, Jones says he feels like “I’ve really had a piece of cake.”
On other farms, the stories are grim. Generator problems on the first 18 of 20 farms he visited. Shredded buildings or roofs. No feed. No fuel. No power. Cows bawling to be milked and no way to milk them. Sick cows. Lots of sick cows.
“The stress level was beyond words,” Jones said. “Dairy farmers’ stress is connected to their cows’ stress.”
On his brief visits, Jones delivered cash from the DFA Cares effort. “This region quickly became a cash society,” he said. No credit cards, no credit, few checks accepted.
“It was a very, very gratifying experience to be able to deliver just a little help and some hope,” Jones said.
Some producers, however, have given up. The cows are sold. There’s nothing left to milk.
“My farm will survive,” Jones said, “but some told me, ‘I just can’t go on.’”
He clings to a sliver of hope.
“Mississippi will rebuild. Louisiana will rebuild. But it will take a long time,” Jones said. And lots of money and federal assistance, he added.
“Whenever you realize you can’t help yourself, it’s a very humbling experience when people come to your rescue.
“We’re blessed to be here.”