Bayou Rebuilders

WHILE the first few weeks were fascinating and heartbreaking and every TV in America was tuned to hurricane coverage last fall, the public soon lost interest.
People prayed and opened their wallets, but now, six months later, much of the world has gone back to their lives.
Those a little farther south, however, still have houses sitting in the streets, right where the floodwaters deserted them.
And Cajun farmers still have acres of pasture fencing uprooted or gone, surge water covering their fields, and their cattle living 100 miles from home.
As many people forget and move on, volunteers from across the country quietly make their way to the Gulf Coast. They pack their sleeping bags, mingle with the locals, unload semis of hay, pound fence posts and untangle miles of barbed wire.
Think about this. Imagine a rolling wall of water coming off the coast.
It’s picking up sand, collecting trees and trash and cars, gathering force as waves drive it forward. It pushes through pastures like a bulldozer, with the fences doing nothing more than snapping at the posts and the barbed wire acting as a net to catch the debris.
Even when the surge ends, 3 feet of saltwater covers the ground for weeks. It eats away at the wire, ensuring it can never be used again.
Total destruction.
“Total,” said Dennis Schlagel, director for Fellowship of Christian Farmers. “It’s unbelievable. There’s no mending.”
It’s starting over.
‘An eye-opener.’ Fellowship of Christian Farmers is the leading force behind an effort to rebuild 4,500 square miles of fence in two particularly devastated Louisiana parishes. The group is recruiting volunteers from across the country to help.
Chase Stuckey and a group of his friends from Fulton County, Ohio, headed south last month and put in miles of fence every day for a week.
They stayed their nights for free in a retired farmer’s remodeled machine shop, and they spent their days on a 40,000-head alligator farm near Abbeville.
The crew worked about eight hours a day, or until supplies ran out, building fence across the farmer’s 1,500 acres of pasture for his 600 cattle and 80 horses.
Even after all they did, Stuckey said the destruction was too much.
“There’s tons of work left,” he said. “They could use volunteers from now until a year from now.”
Stuckey, 26, farms a grain and beef operation with his family in Archbold and has been known to help with other relief missions.
“Sometimes you send money to an organization but you don’t know where it really goes,” he said. “I feel better about actually going and helping. It was an eye-opener.”
Stuckey’s crew is just a handful of the volunteers who’ve taken Fellowship of Christian Farmers up on its call for help.
So far, 126 farmers from 12 states have made the trip. In addition, 50 high school and 30 college students spent their spring breaks with pliers and hammers. Together, Schlagel said they’ve gone through three semiloads of donated barbed wire.
A slow process. “We have a long way yet to go to be back to where we were, but we’ve taken some big steps,” said Hank Moss, a farmer and rancher who says he was on the front line of the tidal surge.
In minutes, Hurricane Rita did a quarter-million-dollars worth of damage to his rice, crawfish, cattle and cutting horse operation near Erath, La. That price tag doesn’t include the debt he’s incurred to rebuild or the months with no way to generate an income, he said.
Thanks to Fellowship of Christian Farmers volunteers, five miles of fencing and a barn have been rebuilt and he’s slowly bringing his cattle home from rented pasture in the northern part of the state.
“It would’ve taken a couple years to do what they’ve been able to do,” he said.
“A lot of farmers and ranchers here feel like [the volunteers] were sent from heaven. Just out of nowhere they came. It’s a miracle,” Moss said. “Rita was sent from hell but these guys were sent from heaven.”

You can pitch in:
Cost is $25 per person and you can stay as long as you are able. Accommodations and kitchen facilities are included, but RV sites are also available. Just bring your favorite tool belt and fencing pliers.
Visit www.fcfi.org or call 309-365-8710.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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