FEMA Fails Farmers

In the wake of Hurricane Dennis, farmers in Northwest Florida are picking up, starting over, and doing so without the assistance other victims receive. Pam Golden

Published on: Jul 19, 2005

Ten months after Hurricane Ivan flattened their barns, wiped out crops, and ripped through their pine stands, farmers in Santa Rosa County, Fla., are again figuring out what’s left, what’s destroyed and what can be fixed.

This time the hurricane was named Dennis. The rest of the story is much the same.

"This is a mess," Florida Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, said. Evers, who farms in neighboring Okaloosa County, toured the damaged area last week with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Florida Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview.

"We have to start looking at the way agriculture is being treated during disasters," Miller said.

As the regulations now stand, small business owners -- including farmers -- are not eligible for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Individuals can apply for assistance from FEMA for anything that is not covered by insurance. Small business owners must turn to their insurance and then can apply for low interest loans from the Small Business Administration, or in a farmer’s case, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Millard Holley ran that rat race after Ivan. He was particularly interested in getting assistance on a new barn for which he hadn’t yet pulled an insurance policy.

FEMA turned him down.

"They sent me to the SBA. SBA told me I wasn’t qualified and I could go to the Federal Land Bank," Holley recalled. "So I just forgot about it and went on and did what I needed to do."

Holley figured total damage to his property was about $200,000 -- and that doesn’t include a 105-acre stand of 13-year-old pine trees that was 85 to 90% destroyed. No insurance is available for pine stands. Holley lost the pines and was reimbursed for about $125,000 of the other losses.

"Oh," Holley said, "and I got $150 from FEMA for a chainsaw I bought."

Holley’s experience likely will be the standard for farmers felled by natural disasters -- and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., believes that’s the way it should be.

The intent of the 2002 Farm Bill was to provide for ways for farmers to insure themselves so disaster packages no longer were an annual part of the federal government’s decision making, Chambliss said.

"As a result of what we’ve done, you see more farmers participating in insurance programs," Chambliss said.

Insurance programs are not available for all commodities, however, and although USDA is adding new programs, Chambliss doesn’t expect to see every crop covered.

"I wish I could say that we could cover every commodity, including livestock and pine trees and peach trees for that matter," Chambliss said. "But we simply cannot write insurance programs to cover all commodities."