A member of the state forestry department clears trees from the Austins’ farm property near Marianna, Fla.
A member of the state forestry department clears trees from the Austins’ farm property near Marianna, Fla. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    MARIANNA, Fla. – Life throughout the South Atlantic is slowly returning to normal after two hurricanes made landfall this fall, bringing about heavy rains and immeasurable damage to dairy communities in the southern United States.
    In September, Hurricane Florence swept across the Carolinas, and a short month later, Hurricane Michael arrived in the Florida Panhandle.
    “We’ve been able to take care of ourselves because of the outpouring of support from our fellow farmers,” said Meghan Austin of the Florida dairy industry.
    Austin and her husband, Brad, milk 300 cows in Jackson County near Marianna, Fla.
    The couple is one of many displaced with the aftermath of the fall storms.
    In the weeks following the hurricane’s landfall Oct. 10, the Austins have spent their time clearing debris and large trees from their farm property.
    “Our house is OK, but the yard looks like a bomb went off,” said Austin of her home located 10 miles from the farm site. “It’s defeating to know this is all gone, and it takes everything I have not to burst into tears every time I see it. Everybody around us is in the same boat.”
     The Austins’ 500-acre property was comprised of pastureland and hardwoods.
    “It’s not the most ideal place to dairy, but we love the outdoors,” Austin said.
    Unlike other storms where the Austins had time to prepare, they were caught off guard with the quick onset of Hurricane Michael.
    The family became aware of the storm’s development Oct. 7 and hurriedly prepared their farm for the anticipated damage. They refueled the generators and tied down any structures and equipment that could become projectiles. Cows were given the choice to hunker down in the barn or weather the storm in the open pasture.
    “This was the fastest hurricane to hit us in some time,” Austin said. “We prepared for the worst-case scenario, which this ended up being.”
    By the morning of Oct. 10, the hurricane was brewing overhead. The Austins sent their one full-time employee home to seek shelter, as the other brought his family to the farm and camped out in the dairy’s office.
    At the same time, Austin and her husband completed morning milking and chores nearly two hours ahead of schedule. By noon, the couple retreated to Austin’s grandmother’s home on the farm.
    In the six hours that followed, the Austins remained under shelter as trees fell around them and winds surpassed 100 miles per hour.
    “That was the scariest situation I’ve ever been in in my entire life,” Austin said. “We didn’t realize how severe the storm was, and we’re 60 miles inland. It was still a Category 4 storm when it hit Georgia.”
    By 6 p.m., Austin felt the storm was safe enough to return outside and assess the damage. The cows were safely on pasture, but Austin had a half-mile trek through downed trees before she could confirm the health of the youngstock.
    “When I saw the oak trees down, my heart sank,” Austin said. “I knew I had live babies in there, but was unsure of how many we also lost.”
    By daybreak the following morning, the Austins approached the damage with clearer minds.
    More than 1,000 trees were toppled across their property, all the fence line was ruined, and they lost four dry cows. Luckily, all 70 calves on milk were unharmed.
    It took two days for the Austins, volunteers and the state forestry department to clear a path from the dairy barn to the main road.
    While Austin’s farm became accessible shortly after the storm passed, their milk could not be picked up for another seven days.
    The property’s perimeter fencing remained intact, but other downed fences caused the dry cows, yearlings and heifers to become intermingled during the dairy’s calving season.
    “These last few weeks have been like triaging in the ER room,” Austin said. “First, we were going minute by minute, now it’s day by day, prioritizing fence lines, refueling generators and continuing milking. Honestly, I thank God we’re not a bigger farm. With the magnitude of this storm, it would be debilitating.”
      Dairy farmers further up the East Coast are also recouping from Hurricane Florence’s damage, which made landfall Sept. 14.
    While extra precautions were necessary, preparing for the severe weather was also routine. Adequate shelter was provided for their livestock, loose housing was secured and generators were fueled, among other tasks that would help protect the farm facilities, livestock and land.
    “We were still harvesting, so we had to ensure the silage pits were covered, hay was out of the field, stack and covered, and equipment was stored in the best location,” Caci Nance said. “We also had to ensure all lots were scraped and cleaned ahead of the storm to control manure runoff from excessive rains.”
    Nance and her family are one of 50 dairy farms left in South Carolina. The Nances milk 160 cows near McConnells, S.C., located south of the border from Charlotte, N.C.
    When the storm arrived, it lingered until the morning of Sept. 17.
    “Thankfully, even with the duration of rainfall, the amount we received was not what was predicted,” said Nance of the six inches of accumulated moisture. “Most of [the dairies] are located in the western half of the state, so none of us sustained much damage. However, many of our row crop and hog farm friends have completely lost this year’s crops and every animal in the barn due to flooding. While the storm didn’t devastate the dairy industry, it has significantly impacted agriculture.”
    Milk processing plants across the state closed as the storm passed through, but were shut down at different times and days, which mitigated the need to dump milk.
    In the weeks following, the Nances were able to return operations to normal. They did receive an additional two inches of rain as Hurricane Michael passed through as a tropical storm.
     “We were blessed to not sustain damage or experience a loss of power,” Nance said.
    Everyone in the South Atlantic region of the United States remains on alert as hurricane season lingers for another month. However, the outpouring of help from near and far is a sure sign no one has to go through disaster alone.
    “Seeing the response of people across the state is so heartwarming, and it’s really restored my faith in humanity,” Austin said.