Picking up the Pieces

When the levees in New Orleans broke on that ill-fated day in August, the picture of the Big Easy was changed forever; a sector rich in food processing, agriculture, fishing and fine cuisine was left to pick up the pieces from what can be considered the Armageddon of natural disasters.

The trauma came swiftly and mercilessly as Hurricane Katrina–the first of the three meteorological medusas and the sixth-strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin–ripped through the Gulf Coast.

“We’re talking multiple square miles in multiple locations of just loss,” says Jon Bell, associate professor in the department food science at Louisiana State University’s AgCenter in Baton Rouge. “It’s like a war zone. Some houses are standing, but there’s no life. There’s no electricity. There’s dead grass. It’s block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, and it is mind boggling. It’s hard to describe and hard to understand.”

Aside from the destruction, Bell and two of his fellow LSU AgCenter colleagues are getting first-hand experience as they assist federal agencies in sifting through the rubble in painting perhaps what will be a future picture of the landfall area’s food industry with hopes of it being reminiscent of its snapshot past.

Bell, along with David Bankston, a professor in the department of the food science, and Associate Professor A. James Farr, were as positive as they were frank when discussing the impact the hurricanes had on various sectors of the food industry with Food Quality magazine.

“The primary impact is on the infrastructure not on the resources,” says Bankston, a Louisiana native.

While a fair number of food operations are now up and running, infrastructure is still the biggest piece of the puzzle. It runs the gamut, from power to telecommunications to potable water to housing to fuel docks to facilities to personnel.

“We’re so short-handed right now,” a manager at an A&P in New Orleans told Food Quality before suggesting a call should be placed to corporate offices. Calls to A&P’s corporate offices in Connecticut, however, were not returned.

And for an area that is hub for agriculture, ingredient supply, meat, poultry and seafood processing and distribution as well as chemical plants and refineries, the lack of infrastructure can hinder any and all efforts to rebuild.

“When we say it hit the infrastructure, we also mean that the New Orleans area supplied a lot of ingredients and spices to the southeast,” says Farr. “Restaurants have had to find new suppliers and that has caused problems with menus, restaurants, processors. It has had a ripple effect throughout. We lost a big market. We lost the labor, too. Unskilled laborers are in high demand for any place north of the flood zone. This situation is still an ongoing book we’re trying to read.”

U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., however, summed it up best. “Where once you had an operating society, now there’s nothing — no fire truck, no school, no grocery store,” he recently told The Houston Chronicle.

Retail Rehab Road

While the destruction, looting, violence and death were often the subjects of mainstream headlines, the total damages were tough to pin down and hovering at an estimated $70 billion to $130 billion.

Adding salt to an already sore landscape, hurricane insult was exacerbated by bureaucratic injury.

In early September, as military personnel rescued the displaced from rooftops and shelters burst at the seams, nearly 400,000 packaged meals landed on a tarmac at Little Rock Air Force Base and were trucked off to Louisiana. Most of the $5.3 million worth of food, however, never reached hurricane victims because of fears about mad cow disease and a long-standing ban on British beef.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *