Secretary Tours South, Sees Infrastructure Problems

Vilsack calls damage an eye-opening experience.

Published on: May 3, 2011

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack saw a lot of tornado damage during his eight years as Governor of Iowa, but Sunday evening he said he's never seen anything as significant, as widespread and as devastating as what he saw in Alabama and Mississippi.

Vilsack was among a handful of Obama cabinet members who traveled to the region to pledge their agency's support during what will almost certainly be a lengthy rebuilding process.  As for the short-term agricultural impact of the storms, the USDA chief said he has been pointing out programs through the Farm Service Agency that will help farmers remove debris from fields.

"There are farmers and producers from both states that are dealing with debris that is making it difficult for them to access crops or get a crop in the ground," Vilsack said. "I'm very concerned about the poultry industry, particularly in Alabama, as we estimate probably 400 houses devastated in one way or another, so they are dealing with disposal issues."

He said USDA also stands ready to assist producers along the rain-swollen Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The river at Cairo, Ill. is forecast to crest at a record 61.5 feet Tuesday. 

"There are significant risks associated with that level getting above 61 feet," Vilsack said. "When that happens we are talking about substantial potential damages to places like Cairo and on down the river."

The Army Corps of Engineers moved a step closer to opening the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in southeast Missouri for the first time in 75 years by loading blasting agent into pipes buried in the mainline levee. 

Major General Michael Walsh chairs the Mississippi River Commission and says the Mississippi River Tributaries Project has never been under this kind of pressure before and there are different places of it where things are beginning to degrade."

With lakes that empty into the Ohio holding record amounts of water, Walsh wouldn't hazard a guess as to whether the lower Mississippi would return to its banks in time for farmers to plant a 2011 crop.