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Twisters slash through west Tennessee farms
By ANN HINCH
Tennessee Correspondent

NEWBERN, Tenn. — Stepping outside to head to their house after pulling their vehicles into their smaller metal shop, both parents spotted the tornado bearing down on their property.

Rather than try to run for their home, the couple took their child back into the shed and climbed inside one of the vehicles for shelter. It proved an amazingly lucky decision for Eric Maupin’s first cousins, since the twister leveled their house and lifted their shop off the ground … but spared their vehicles.

“Kind of looks like a big vacuum cleaner just sucked it right up,” Maupin, of nearby Dyersburg, said of the swath at least three tornadoes mowed through the small town of Newbern on April 2. “We’ve never seen a tornado that actually set down and stayed on the ground for that long.”

The tornadoes destroyed other parts of Dyer County, too, as well as sections of adjoining Gibson County (and even other states). Both are located in the northwestern corner of Tennessee. More than 20 people were initially reported dead, with the count inching upward on an almost-daily basis last week, many of them in Dyer County.

Tim Campbell, director of the local University of Tennessee extension office, said while most of the monetary damage was to homes – about 200 of them in Dyer County alone, at an estimated $15 million – land, livestock, farm equipment, vehicles and outbuildings were also destroyed.

“I’m sure we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said of such losses. More precise figures were not available at press time, since local officials were still searching debris for survivors and bodies.

Tim Smith, extension director of nearby Obion County, estimated the tornadoes’ path through Dyer County was a half-mile wide at some points and perhaps 10 miles long. They hit only a couple miles south of the Obion County line, or about 15 miles from Smith’s office.

While Obion sustained some outbuilding and property damage, as did a few other nearby Tennessee counties, Smith noted, “After what I’ve seen in Dyer County, we didn’t have any damage.”

Maupin had the same reaction regarding his family’s farming operation in Newbern, roughly a half-mile from the center of the tornadoes’ main path.

“I almost feel guilty even mentioning anything,” he said, explaining one outbuilding had been moved and they lost roofs from two houses.

He, like other farmers, spent much of last week cleaning up debris or helping others search for lost livestock and mend ripped fences. One neighbor alone lost nearly 40 branded cows, which Maupin was helping track down while speaking from his cell phone.

Campbell added the same producer had found some dead cattle still on his property following the storm – their carcasses were piled in a corner of his field, tossed there by high winds. Other farmers’ livestock had to be euthanized by local veterinarians because they wandered out onto highways and were hit by vehicles – Campbell does not know how many, but estimated perhaps 10 large animals, mostly cattle. He knows some horses were also killed because of the storm.

This time of year in the South is when young winter wheat is growing tall, but Campbell said he didn’t think there was much crop damage in Dyer County, based on lack of calls from farmers. They had been planting corn for a few days when the tornadoes struck, but there was not much seed in the ground. Still, he estimated perhaps 15-20 percent of affected land could be classed “agricultural.”

Maupin noted, “This is probably one of the worst times something like this could happen in the agricultural community.”

He and his family have a beef operation but also grow corn, soybeans and cotton, and now is the start of planting season. With all the large debris in fields, not to mention equipment losses, some farmers may find it difficult to start timely or to get as much seed planted as originally intended.

Campbell said the tornadoes crossed mostly-hilly terrain, so they didn’t damage as many crop and pasture fields as they could have. They did uproot massive numbers of trees, as anyone who has seen television news footage can attest (the scenes remind one of damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on parts of the Gulf coast last year).

In the northern part of Gibson County, barns and grain bins were damaged, according to local Extension Director Philip Shelby. At one large hog facility, the tornadoes lifted four barns off the ground, but curiously, left the interior pens mostly intact. Of the nearly 5,000 hogs, Shelby said about a dozen were killed; the rest had to be temporarily relocated or sold to farms in Gibson and Obion counties. Except for those hogs, livestock loss was not major.

“Everything’s just littered,” Shelby said, explaining damage assessment is difficult until debris is cleared.

For example, it’s not known how much wheat might be lost in Gibson County – unlike in Dyer County, much of what was in the tornadoes’ path was row-crop land.

Farming operations weren’t the only agricultural losses of the tornadoes. Production at the 700-employee Sara Lee Foods plant in Newbern halted last week to repair a loading-dock wall and damage to the roof. Its biggest material loss was its electrical substation, which spokesperson Sara Matheu said TVA is moving quickly to replace.

“As you can imagine, there’s so much devastation there, that we’re really trying to pull things together,” said Matheu from Sara Lee’s Downers Grove, Ill., headquarters. Fortunately, the plant had backup power generators and its freezers weren’t damaged, so meat shipments resumed April 5. (Jimmy Dean Sausage is part of Sara Lee.)

“It’s hard for me to describe what I’ve seen,” Maupin said, pausing to think. “I wish I could portray it better … the loss of life has been the big thing.”

This farm news was published in the April 12, 2006 issue of Farm World.

4/12/2006