By TIM ALEXANDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — USDA Rural Development responded to victims of “Superstorm” Sandy – many of whom were living without electricity, transportation or lodging – by working with utility companies to restore power and water to more than 130,000 rural customers last week.
As part of federal efforts to provide support to rural East Coast residents affected by the storm, USDA also coordinated with 13 states to provide disaster nutrition assistance and released $5.3 million in Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) funding to 11 states.
“USDA Rural Development has been working closely with electric cooperatives, utilities and operators of rural water systems to restore these critical services as quickly as possible,” stated Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We will continue to work with utilities and local officials to ensure that everyone in the disaster area has access to electricity and safe drinking water.”
By Nov. 5, 12 USDA-funded rural electric systems in nine states had restored power to all but a handful of customers. More than 130,000 rural customers had lost power at the height of the storm’s fury. Vilsack urged home and business owners in rural communities to contact their area Rural Development offices for housing, business or community assistance information.
Residents in urban coastal areas were not as fortunate as some rural citizens. On Nov. 9, nearly two weeks after Sandy’s landfall, hundreds of thousands remained without power in the Mid-Atlantic coastal area as temperatures dipped into the 30s, according to CNN.
USDA was also instrumental in coordinating with states and partner organizations to provide disaster nutrition assistance by distributing approximately 1.1 million pounds of USDA Foods to some 1,000 emergency food stations serving households in New York City, Long Island and Westchester and Rockland counties. The food was to be distributed by the Red Cross and Salvation Army at designated shelters.
To benefit many New Yorkers faced with no way to prepare food in their homes, USDA has granted a waiver to allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to purchase hot foods in addition to prepackaged items. USDA also reached out to retailers to remind them of the procedure for manually processing SNAP transactions during a power outage, ensuring access to food for those who qualify for benefits.
In addition, Vilsack announced on Nov. 8 the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided $5.3 million in EWP program funds to help relieve imminent hazards to life and property.
“This funding will help communities undertake emergency measures to address public safety concerns and begin restoration efforts,” he said. “This assistance also keeps farmers, ranchers and landowners on their land, helping to keep American agriculture strong and profitable.”
The funding – $480,000 each for Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia – could include removing debris from waterways, protecting eroded stream banks, reseeding damaged areas and, in some cases, purchasing floodplain easements on eligible land. NRCS funds 75 percent of project costs, with local sponsors responsible for the balance.
NRCS will be actively involved in Atlantic coastal restoration, providing funding for re-vegetating shorelines and stabilizing sand dunes, according to the USDA.
Nor’easter double whammy
After a nor’easter brought additional rain, snow and high winds to much of the Mid-Atlantic coastal area on the heels of Sandy’s aftermath, many agriculturists were left wondering how much more the region’s unharvested crops could withstand. It appears that much like Sandy, however, the nor’easter has spared acres of cropland from catastrophic weather.
This is according to Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist, who said beyond the coastal areas he didn’t expect “many agricultural impacts” from the storm.
“Rainfall may aggravate wet conditions, but should not cause any renewed flooding,” Rippey said on Nov. 7. “Some of the most dire reports came from Maryland and Delaware, which bore the brunt of heavy rain and also had some significant wind.”
Just 55 percent of soybeans had been harvested in those states when Sandy hit on Oct. 28, though the harvest plodded ahead to 66 percent complete in Delaware and 60 percent harvested in Maryland. Most corn in Mid-Atlantic states had been harvested prior to Sandy’s arrival, and any standing corn planted inland was generally unaffected by high winds, Rippey said.
Dry weather in the days prior to the storms minimized long-term effects on cotton fields in Virginia and North Carolina, while orchard trees in the Appalachian highlands received damage from high winds and heavy, wet snow, according to Rippey.