Farmers and ranchers across several Southeast Texas counties are assessing damages caused by multiple days of heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Imelda, which made landfall Thursday, Sept. 19.
The storm, which initially hit the coast near Lake Jackson-Freeport, left as much as four feet of standing water across cotton and soybean fields in Chambers County, which received more than 42 inches of rain over a 24-hour period, according to the National Weather Service office in Houston.
Heavy rainfalls on a stretch of Interstate 10 through Chambers County was closed when all lanes of traffic were covered with over two feet of water in some places. The Texas Department of Transportation reported only two lanes restored and available for use by late Monday afternoon, but the U.S. Coast Guard reported bridge damage repairs over the San Jacinto River were still underway Wednesday after high tides five days before caused several barges to break loose and slam into concrete pilings that forced closure of the Interstate between Houston and Beaumont.
While the slow-moving tropical system was reminiscent of damages caused by Hurricane Harvey in Aug. of 2017, rainfall totals and agricultural losses are not expected to reach those levels. During Harvey a heavy death toll was reported for livestock. While livestock loss numbers are yet to be calculated for Imelda’s floods, Texas Military Forces (Texas National Guard) deployed two Chinook helicopters to drop hay to stranded cattle.
On Sept. 21-22, helicopter crews dropped nearly 1,500 bales of hay to an estimated 4,500 stranded cattle in Chambers and Jefferson counties, according to a report from Blair Fannin, associate director of Extension Communications for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
“Flood and rescue assistance was provided by groups associated with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, including special agents from Texas Task Force, Texas AgriLife Extension personnel from several counties, folks from the Texas Forest Service, and others,” Fannin reported to Southwest Farm Press by telephone and email.
In addition to stranded livestock, farmers across the region are reporting heavily flooded fields, structural damage to buildings and unknown crop losses.
“The rainfall amount of just over 42 inches in Jefferson County makes Imelda’s downpours the seventh wettest tropical system in U. S. history, as well as the fourth wettest tropical cyclone ever to impact the state of Texas,” the National Weather Service in Houston, tweeted Thursday (Sept. 19).
Three Years of Downpours
Galveston County received just under 18 inches of rain from the storm, according to NWS. According to the Houston office, this marks the third consecutive year many Southeast Texas communities have received more than 100 inches of rain. The annual average across the region usually ranges between 40 and 60 inches.
John Gaulding, who farms in the Winnie area, said he still had rice in the fields when Imelda’s rains began falling and fears much of that rice may be gone. He reported all access roads to his farm were flooded and only in recent days have waters begun to recede.
“All I can do is get to the outskirts of the farm and take pictures. I haven’t been able to farm because of all the standing water in my fields,” he said.
In nearby Wharton County, Texas AgriLife agent Corrie Bowen reported about 90,000 acres of cotton had been planted and an estimated 80 percent of those acres had been harvested before Imelda’s storms reach shore.
“I’m guessing we still have about 17,000 to 18,000 acres that were either burned down and ready to come out or close to it, so we’re not sure how much of that we may have lost,” he said. “We had about 8,000 acres of soybeans and all but maybe 1,000 acres had been harvested. Those are probably gone.”
He said at the height of the storm the two-day unofficial rainfall in East Bernard totaled just seven inches.
Jacob Spivey, Texas AgriLife county agent in Tyler County, reported most farms in his area avoided the heavy rains experienced to the South in Jefferson County. He reported rainfall amounts of 4.1 to 6.3 inches across his county.
“We saw minor flooding, but had very little sustained damage due to Imelda,” he reported.
Dr. M.O. (Mo) Way, Professor of Entomology at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Beaumont, said some unharvested rice in and around Jefferson County may sprout in the head, which he described as “not good.”
“Most of the main crop was harvested and very little lodging occurred because there was a lot of rain but not much wind,” he said. “It may have a detrimental effect on ratoon crop pollination.”
Many farmers in Southeast Texas who experienced heavy rains on their unharvested crops, the days ahead represent a “wait and see” time to determine if remaining crops are lost or still salvageable with lower yield or quality. Regardless of crop damage or field conditions, many Southeast communities say some losses cannot be recovered.
At least four confirmed deaths were reported across Southeast Texas and associated with the rains and flooding of Imelda.
The Houston Fire Department reports they responded to more than 2,000 calls for flood-related assistance and provided nearly 1,000 water rescues over the three days of the heaviest rains.
Rescue flights to pick up victims stranded in flooded homes in the Beaumont area were performed by United States Coast Guard crews from Air Station Houston and Air Station New Orleans.
Rescue shelters, a few still open at the time of this writing, were available in several communities across Southeast Texas to help those displaced by the storm.