By Aimee Nielson
LEXINGTON, Ky., (March 14, 2012) – After 14 confirmed tornadoes, including three EF-3s and one EF-4, people all across Kentucky were left to clean up and deal with the aftermath including dozens of fatalities and injuries. Many in the rural communities hit were farmers.
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agents from all over Northern and Eastern Kentucky began to respond to farmers’ needs, even though some of them didn’t even have their own offices to work from, thanks to the twisters.
“I’ve been inspired to see the efforts of our agents out in the field,” said Jimmy Henning, UK College of Agriculture associate dean and director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. “Our agents are very much part of the communities where they work. It was no surprise that they were some of the first to begin coordinating relief efforts in the affected counties. They’ll be right in the middle of it for some time to come.”
Perhaps hardest hit were the eastern counties of Morgan, Magoffin, Menifee, Johnson and Wolfe where an EF-3 tornado, at times a mile wide, stayed on the ground for about 86 miles.
The Morgan County Extension office was destroyed, but that didn’t keep the personnel there from getting right to work in helping their clientele whom in many cases are also their friends and neighbors. From nearby counties, other UK Extension agents began to compile resources and work with agencies to set up staging areas for donated goods and supplies.
“The farming community was hit pretty hard,” said Daniel Wilson, agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Wolfe County. “The storms wiped away barns, fencing and feed. We are getting toward the end of winter feeding where producers are still feeding hay to cattle, horses, goats and other livestock.”
Wilson said the initial need in the affected communities was obviously human safety, but when that was met the extension agents began shifting their attention to the needs of agricultural producers.
“Here it is a week later,” Wilson said March 9. “We still have loose livestock running around.”
Mary McCarty, agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Elliott County said they had talked to farmers who have yet to find any trace of their livestock. She said the days immediately following the storms, she and Courtney Jenkins, agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Menifee County, drove around the counties and passed out flyers about how they were coordinating aid to the agricultural community.
“We were explaining who we were and how we planned to help,” she said. “Then we actually drove back out there with round bales, drove into the fields and pushed out hay for some of the horses. You would’ve thought we dropped a million dollars out there; it was really well received.”
McCarty explained that many farmers had lost everything—homes, barns, cars, tractors, animals, fences. She said that with all they have on their hands right now, they are finding it hard to focus exclusively on their animals.
“That’s where we have come in and tried to help take some of that worry off their minds,” she said.
Through generous donations of small businesses, individuals and the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association, volunteers have been able to distribute supplies equating to about one-quarter mile of four-strand barbed wire, posts and gates to each of nearly 40 farmers.
“We’ll have more supplies coming in for several weeks,” Wilson said. “So we’ve been telling folks if they don’t get what they need the first round, they will in a future distribution. We’ve had to base it all on need and the extent of damage.”
In the North, Michael Mann, Dan Allen and Don Sorrell, agricultural and natural resources extension agents in Pendleton, Kenton and Campbell counties respectively, worked quickly after the EF-4 tornado cut a 10-mile swath of damage through their areas.
Mann said they’ve been working with local Emergency Management officials and the Farm Service Agency to assess how many farmers were affected and how much damage was done.
“We are also helping coordinate getting groups of volunteers from other counties access to help clean up debris and build fences,” he said. “We’ll help collect and distribute the donations to farm families.”
“I am working with the Emergency Management team of Kenton County and will be coordinating pasture and field sweep teams to collect small debris that could harm or even kill livestock if they pick it up while grazing,” Allen said. “Items like small pieces of metal, nails and even fiberglass insulation all can be harmful if ingested.”
Allen said he was grateful to have extension publications available about debris removal and pasture cleanup. They distributed them to volunteers who were in the fields.
In Laurel County, a shorter, but powerful EF-2 tornado touched down and destroyed everything in its path for more than six miles. Extension professionals there began working to feed displaced citizens and volunteers.
“It’s been crazy, but we are beginning to get it all under control,” said Glenn Williams, agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Laurel County. “A lot of farmers didn’t realize their fences were not covered under their insurance policies, so there is a large need for fencing.”
Williams said they had been working hard with local agencies, the cattlemen’s association and the Agricultural Development Board to raise funds for fencing supplies to meet farmers’ needs.
“We’ve had cooperation from local farm and feed stores as well,” he said. “Farmers will get vouchers to use at these stores to purchase fencing supplies. The stores are also going to give them an across-the-board discount of 5 percent on purchases, and up that to 15 to 20 percent off fencing supplies.”
Williams admits this is the first time they’ve had to respond to something so destructive and devastating and that there were some communications glitches.
“We’ve realized that no matter how well you think you are prepared for a disaster, there’s always going to be some glitches,” he said. “But overall we have been so amazed at the response from Kentuckians wanting to work and help… it’s great to see that.”