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Picking up the Pieces
by Mark A. DeSorbo
When the levees in New Orleans broke on that ill-fated day in August, the picture of the Big Easy was changed forever; a sector rich in food processing, agriculture, fishing and fine cuisine was left to pick up the pieces from what can be considered the Armageddon of natural disasters.
The trauma came swiftly and mercilessly as Hurricane Katrina--the first of the three meteorological medusas and the sixth-strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin--ripped through the Gulf Coast.
“We’re talking multiple square miles in multiple locations of just loss,” says Jon Bell, associate professor in the department food science at Louisiana State University’s AgCenter in Baton Rouge. “It’s like a war zone. Some houses are standing, but there’s no life. There’s no electricity. There’s dead grass. It’s block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, and it is mind boggling. It’s hard to describe and hard to understand.”
Aside from the destruction, Bell and two of his fellow LSU AgCenter colleagues are getting first-hand experience as they assist federal agencies in sifting through the rubble in painting perhaps what will be a future picture of the landfall area’s food industry with hopes of it being reminiscent of its snapshot past.
Bell, along with David Bankston, a professor in the department of the food science, and Associate Professor A. James Farr, were as positive as they were frank when discussing the impact the hurricanes had on various sectors of the food industry with Food Quality magazine.
“The primary impact is on the infrastructure not on the resources,” says Bankston, a Louisiana native.
While a fair number of food operations are now up and running, infrastructure is still the biggest piece of the puzzle. It runs the gamut, from power to telecommunications to potable water to housing to fuel docks to facilities to personnel.
“We’re so short-handed right now,” a manager at an A&P in New Orleans told Food Quality before suggesting a call should be placed to corporate offices. Calls to A&P’s corporate offices in Connecticut, however, were not returned.
And for an area that is hub for agriculture, ingredient supply, meat, poultry and seafood processing and distribution as well as chemical plants and refineries, the lack of infrastructure can hinder any and all efforts to rebuild.
“When we say it hit the infrastructure, we also mean that the New Orleans area supplied a lot of ingredients and spices to the southeast,” says Farr. “Restaurants have had to find new suppliers and that has caused problems with menus, restaurants, processors. It has had a ripple effect throughout. We lost a big market. We lost the labor, too. Unskilled laborers are in high demand for any place north of the flood zone. This situation is still an ongoing book we’re trying to read.”
U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., however, summed it up best. “Where once you had an operating society, now there’s nothing — no fire truck, no school, no grocery store,” he recently told The Houston Chronicle.
Retail Rehab Road
While the destruction, looting, violence and death were often the subjects of mainstream headlines, the total damages were tough to pin down and hovering at an estimated $70 billion to $130 billion.
Adding salt to an already sore landscape, hurricane insult was exacerbated by bureaucratic injury.
In early September, as military personnel rescued the displaced from rooftops and shelters burst at the seams, nearly 400,000 packaged meals landed on a tarmac at Little Rock Air Force Base and were trucked off to Louisiana. Most of the $5.3 million worth of food, however, never reached hurricane victims because of fears about mad cow disease and a long-standing ban on British beef.
The rations, routinely consumed by British soldiers, sat in a warehouse in Arkansas for more than a month. According to The Washington Post, some of the food blocked for delivery by the U.S. is set to expire in early 2006 and U.S. taxpayers are spending $16,000 a month to store the meals. The State Department, the Post reports, is “quickly and quietly looking for a needy country to take them.”
Then came the resignation of Michael Brown as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after his qualifications and for what critics call a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction came under fire. David Paulison, the director of FEMA’s preparedness division, has since been named interim director.
Despite what could be considered off-color reconstruction hues, the resolve to rebuild and survive is still strong, and the LSU professors say federal guidelines, which fit snugly in any HACCP or SSOP program, on dealing with the hurricane aftermath have helped bring many businesses and operations out of the ashes.
According to FDA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was concern that the prolonged flooding might lead to an outbreak of health problems for those who remained in the hurricane-affected areas. In addition to dehydration and food poisoning, there was potential for communicable disease outbreaks of diarrhea and respiratory illness, all related to the growing contamination of food and drinking water supplies in the area.
It was also reported that E. coli had been detected at unsafe levels in the waters that flooded New Orleans. The CDC also reported on Sept. 7 that five people had died of bacterial infection from drinking water contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus.
But the microbial impact paled in comparison, Bell says, noting that state and federal agencies were more than diligent when testing not only potentially potable water sources, but Gulf and lake waters as well.
“They found only low levels of pathogens and tested for more than 200 chemicals,” he says. “There was not a huge contamination or environmental impact that people had to be concerned about. Bacterial pathogens or chemicals are actually safe levels.”
Bell adds that the contaminated water-food issue may have been blown out of proportion by the media.
“The problem is you have people on television saying, don’t eat anything, it’s not safe,’ painting these scary pictures, but there is no cause for concern. You have to wait until the tests come back,” he says.
Kevin Smith, FDA’s manager of federal/state programs in the Division of Federal/State Relations in Rockville, Md., said the predominant issue was power loss, and because refrigeration was down, potentially hazardous food had to be discarded.
Smith was one of several federal officials deployed to hurricane impacted areas. In New Orleans, he focused on the retail arena, assisting about 1,000 establishments, from grocery stores, restaurants, day care centers, nursing homes and schools, in reopening for business.
“Everyone was willing to discard any perishable food. And then the damage to the facilities, that was the next concern, and mold,” Smith says. “Sometimes mold spores blew in and took hold in a lot of places. So, the containers of non-perishable food that had mold on them had to be thrown out, too.”
According to general considerations, handed down by FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) for retail and food service establishments, businesses were instructed to conduct a complete self-inspection to ensure that normal operations can be resumed safely and without compromising food safety.
“For full service operations involving complex food preparation, complete reinstatement of all public utilities is necessary before reopening,” according to the guidelines.
The guidelines addressed potable water, electricity, sewerage, the structural integrity of facilities and equipment, maintaining safe food temperatures, pest control and employees.
One particular sector LSU’s Bankston, Bell and Farr worked with federal officials was New Orleans meat, poultry and seafood processors.
About 19 plants in the area, they say, had to shutdown. Of those, 13 are still not operational. One facility lost 53 million pounds of chicken, while another lost 11 million pounds of shrimp. While they presume that some facilities may be in the process of relocating, many of these are simply locked out by Hurricane Katrina’s lasting grip.
The LSU Food Science Department was actually charged with looking for plants that were not in use in other areas in an effort to get processors pummeled by the hurricane back in action.
“On the seafood side, there are a number of those, but they were all in the areas affected by Rita,” says Bankston. “In some ways, you can divide the impact. Some were flooded. Some were impacted primarily by loss of electricity and the difficulty getting in because of flooding.”
“Some had wind damage, lost ceilings, leakage, and there were processing areas that needed repair,” Farr adds.
Bankston says there were a number of small processors in the greater New Orleans area, and a lot of the customers of these small processors were restaurants in the New Orleans area.
“Some of the restaurants were not only being hit with rebuilding a facility, but also rebuilding their labor force and dealing with a customer base that’s not what it used to be,” he says.
One particular market that took a huge hit from the hurricanes and is expected to take some time to recover is exportation.
“We had a big exportation port here in New Orleans,” Farr says. “We had a lot of these frozen storage facilities. Everything that was in there was lost,” he says, adding that stock in these facilities came from five different states.”
To get back in business, however, many of these operations had to get potable water, first and foremost.
According to the CFSAN guidelines, if no potable municipal water supply, non-community public water system or private well water is available to food establishments, potable water should be brought in (tanks, bottled water, “water buffalos,” etc.) for food preparation, cooking, utensil, food contact surfaces and hand washing.
“A small food establishment with three employees uses about 500 gallons of water a day; a major clean-up effort could use twice as much water,” the agency indicates.
While some establishments did, in fact, bring in potable water under the supervision of state and federal officials, others waited on a backlogged list for water analysis, and that took several days to ensure water met Environmental Protection Agency standards.
“In some ways, the restaurant arena is coming back decently,” says Bankston. “In fact, some of those restaurants were opened up before they had potable water through the city system.”
After the evacuation of New Orleans, many found refuge in Baton Rouge, and Bankston, Bell and Farr say that is now Louisiana’s largest city.
“The restaurant trade here is doing well,” Farr says.
“The difficulty is finding the employees to handle the number of people wanting service,” Bankston adds.
Grocery stores, too, seem to be bouncing back, but not to where they way they were before the hurricane.
“You may not have the choices you used to have, particularly in areas that have become more populated,” Bankston says. “Part of the reason is the stuff is off the shelves before they can restock it, but it’s not necessarily because of a shortage. There are some local brands that are hard to find, too.”
An Opus for Oysters
The seafood market is perhaps one of the most difficult to gauge when it comes to assessing just how much damage the hurricanes caused.
“A lot of boats did survive, and they are out there shrimping and fishing. There are processors up and running, too, but it’s going to be a slow revival much like life is in the rest of the state,” says Bell, a seafood processing expert.
The area from Baton Rouge to Lafayette skirted the edges of Katrina and Rita, but any seafood processor, and there were many in the path of Katrina, were devastated.
“A lot of those business are not up and running,” Bells says. “Then Rita came up on our Western flank, in places like Cameron, where there’s a lot of shrimping and processing. There are some places that are back to normal, but there are a lot of them that were highly impacted. Up north, the processors were able to get going again in a week or two.”
When it comes to shrimp, the resources is there, it’s just finding the people to catch them and the docks to unload them on and the processors to handle them, he adds. Usually, shrimping and fishing is good after a hurricane, but for oysters, it’s a different story. Oysters have to be tested for contaminants as does the water that harbors the beds oysters live and breed in. Roughly half of the oyster beds in and around the impacted areas Gulf were destroyed by bed silting and scouring. On Sept. 23, molluscan shellfish beds in Terrebonne Parish and all areas west to the Louisiana-Texas border were closed because of the possible adverse environmental effects of Hurricane Rita. The harvest areas remained closed until the state and federal officials are confident that the waters are free of bacterial and chemical contamination.
“After any hurricane, there are preliminary closures of oyster harvest areas until they can be tested. If it’s an impact zone, silting and scouring of oyster beds and suffocates and kills the oysters,” Bell says. “If the bed was demolished or there were a lot of deaths, it can take two to three years to rebuild it back to its commercial operating level.”
At the time of this report, it was estimated by Florida Citrus Mutual, a Lakeland, Fla.-based organization representing Sunshine State citrus growers that Hurricane Wilma wiped out an estimated 17 percent of the state’s total citrus crop, including nearly half of the grapefruit. The loss, at least $180 million worth, as the preliminary damage estimate also does not include financial losses from wrecked barns, equipment, processing and packing facilities. But Mutual estimated that another 11.3 million boxes of grapefruit likely are lost because of Wilma, 47 percent of the crop as forecast before the storm by the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service in Orlando.
The preliminary loss to oranges was pegged at 24.4 million boxes, or 13 percent of the state’s crop. About 96 percent of the Florida orange crop is typically processed into orange juice. Florida citrus growers supply 80 percent of the nation’s orange juice supply and 38 percent of the world orange juice supply.
Bankston warns, however, that the impact, whether it’s on an oyster bed, a grapefruit grove or a rice field in the delta, time will reveal the true impact of the hurricanes.
“You’re going to have to look two or three years down the road to see what the long term effects are,” he says. “There are businesses that were in New Orleans that have relocated. We’ve definitely got an impact on the agriculture, including the forestry segment. There’s salt water intrusion in rice fields that will effect the fields for several years, if not indefinitely.”
Bankston, Bell and Farr say there’s still work to be done and that there is a very fine line between returning to some semblance of normal and what will never be again. “The term is the new normal,” Bell says.
Adds Farr, “Normal is defined as after from what was before.”