Flooding in West Virginia impacts state's agriculture

Lt. Dennis Feazell, of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, rows his boat as he and a co-worker search flooded homes in Rainelle, W. Va., June 25, 2016.
Steve Helber | AP

The deadly floods in West Virginia dealt a blow to the state's agribusiness industry, with losses likely to exceed $10 million, officials said.

The state Agriculture Department said the full extent of the damage to the farm sector was still being tallied.

"Cattle and hay will probably be the most affected items," said Buddy Davidson, a department spokesman. "Hay is our number one crop and it is typically used on the farm to feed the cattle in the wintertime."

The flooding has claimed at least 23 lives statewide since last week, and at one point led Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to declare a state of emergency in 44 of the state's 55 counties. Three hard-hit counties — Greenbrier, Kanawha and Nicholas — initially received presidential disaster declarations that allowed them to receive grants and other federal relief resources.

Preliminary ag damage estimates are in the "tens and tens of millions (of dollars)," said Davidson. "We will keep our fingers crossed and see what happens. From what we're hearing … it appears less severe than it might have been."

Most of the damage is in West Virginia's central and southeast regions, where cattle and hay operations are located. The eastern panhandle, where corn, soy beans and poultry operations are concentrated, received some rainfall but was not as hard hit, according to Davidson.

Overall, agriculture commodities represent nearly $1 billion in cash receipts to the West Virginia economy, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Livestock-related sectors account for almost 80 percent of the total, while the remainder is largely from crops such as hay, corn, soy beans, wheat and apples.

According to Davidson, county officials are doing surveys statewide and coordinating with the USDA's local Farm Service Agency for disaster relief assistance, including emergency loans. Eight counties submitted preliminary damage estimates, and he expects "a few more" to provide information on impacts.

Tomblin announced in a Twitter posting late Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency expanded federal disaster declarations to include Fayette, Clay, Roane, Summers and Monroe counties. Declarations are pending for Webster and Pocahontas counties.

Meantime, the state's ag agency cautioned farmers and home growers that there's a risk of harmful bacteria in crops that made contact with floodwaters as well as contamination of soils for up to a year. For one, bacteria such as listeria campylobacter can persist in soil for up to a year.

The historic floods led the PGA Tour, the professional golf organization, on Saturday to announce cancellation of the upcoming Greenbrier Classic tournament planned to start July 7 at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs. The PGA Tour this week announced a $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross for disaster assistance in West Virginia.