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Hurricane Michael Was the Most Devastating Disaster Florida's Farmers Have Seen in Decades

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Michael hit the Southeast, reports of its devastation continue to grow. The death toll rose to 45 on Sunday after officials linked six more deaths to the storm. Now, a new study suggests the damage to the land was also severe. Economists from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences found that the storm caused $158 million in agricultural losses in Florida alone, according to a report published Friday.

The storm wiped out nearly one million acres of crops in "the most serious natural disaster to impact agricultural and natural resources industries in the Florida Panhandle in decades," Tom Nordlie writes in the study. Winds of up to 155 miles per hour appeared to pick the cotton fields clean, wiping out "virtually all" of the state's crop, with losses totaling $51 million. The storm also depleted the Southeast's crop of peanuts, fruits, vegetables, and pecans. Worse, these are likely conservative estimates, since the report did not quantify long-term effects on agriculture.

But to combat these losses, farmers will indeed need to think long-term—making changes such as adjusting crop varieties and planting dates—according to Bob Kemerait, plant pathologist at the University of Georgia. Several recent, intense storms have the region's hard-hit farmers thinking: "Is this the new normal? Are we going to be fighting storms like this during harvest on a more regular basis? And if so, what are we going to do about that?" Kemerait said earlier this month.

In the storm's aftermath, the United States Department of Agriculture has made relief available to farmers and others who now lack access to food: providing emergency loans to cover crop losses, replacing benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and urging farmers to enroll in conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which the USDA says "can help mitigate loss from exceptional storm events in the future," according to a press release. However, as Pacific Standard has reported, funding for this same program has come under fire in the highly politicized farm bill fight.

These financial totals account for just one year's worth of cotton and other crops, the report says. But as climate change unleashes stronger hurricanes on the nation's coasts, the real effects will last much longer.