It’s been a tough season for agriculture in South and Southeast Texas, and the challenges are far from over.
Wind gusts in excess of 150 mph, more than 50 inches of torrential rains, devastating floods, damaged or destroyed farm equipment and structures that were flattened, crops demolished and livestock scattered or lost, and still challenges are mounting for many farmers and ranchers who suffered the power and destruction of Harvey's terrible landfall.
In addition to all the losses and damages suffered by agricultural interests, new concerns are surfacing, the latest a warning about salt poisoning and water salinity issues in coastal areas, especially in areas hit hard by storm surge during the height of Harvey's landfall. According to Extension officials, livestock could be at especially high risk.
"Livestock producers worked around the clock to move animals from the storm's flood waters. Many cows have survived the storm and the flooding, but with salt water mixing with fresh flood water, they are left with undrinkable brackish water. Livestock owners along the Texas coast should get a salinity test or a salinity meter to check for high levels of salinity," warns Bobby McCool, San Patricio County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.
SALTY STORM SURGE
He says that producers who experienced storm surge across their property should pay close attention to their livestock, whose only access to water is pond water. During the peak of the hurricane, storm surge affected fields in parts of San Patricio, Aransas, Refugio, Victoria, and to a lesser extent Jackson counties. Hardest hit with salty storm surge were property owners located between the city of Ingleside and north up the coast as far as Port Lavaca. The surge covered fields and highways, knocking down fences, stranding or drowning livestock and wildlife, and causing massive losses to cattle and wildlife.
Not only were ponds and livestock tanks flooded, but so were ground wells.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), seawater flooding after a severe storm can damage wells and contaminate groundwater as well as freshwater lakes and ponds. Such contamination can include high salt content that could be harmful to humans and animals alike, but also bacterial and biological contamination, and even petroleum and chemical contamination, especially in areas that support industrial and marine activity.
The risk of consumption of such water can vary between minor irritation or illness to more serious complications including disabling sickness and even death, depending on the nature and amount of contamination. Even contaminated water caused by excessive rain can be hazardous.
"Producers and residents who experienced storm surge should pay attention to their livestock whose only access to water is pond water. Ponds or low tidal pools will have salt water in them and over time, due to evaporation or consumption, salinity levels can rise to intolerable levels," McCool warns. "Staggering, scouring, lethargic, de-hydrated or un-healthy appearance [in animals] could be signs of high salinity in the water."
A simple test can help property owners determine the salinity of pond and well water, and in the case of groundwater that is used to fill tanks or for human consumption, a test for bacterial infection can and should be performed.
"The amount of drinkable water should be limited to cattle that have been in flooded water for a long period of time. Typically, anything less than 7,000 parts per million (ppm), although it is not ideal, will be safe for livestock to drink. We prefer that to be less than 5,000 ppm," reports Texas A&M AgriLife Extension livestock specialist Joe Paschal in Corpus Christi.
HUMAN HEALTH HAZARDS
Farm and ranch workers should also take care when working in and around contaminated water sources as disease can be contracted through cuts or skin abrasions and even by mosquito bites.
Just last week a 77-year-old woman died from a flesh-eating bacterial infection she contracted after falling into Hurricane Harvey floodwaters inside her Texas home. She was the second victim so far who contracted a serious infection as a result of contaminated water. A Galveston County man contracted sepsis from flood waters and died earlier this month. In a related incident, a firefighter was contaminated through an insect bite while helping Missouri City neighbors. He survived, however, after receiving prompt medical treatment.
Health officials warn these may not be the only cases of fatal water contamination illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, necrotizing fasciitis is a serious bacterial skin infection that kills the body's soft tissue, spreads quickly and can be fatal in a short time. Prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can prevent death. But early treatment is required and some victims are not immediately aware of the seriousness of the infection until it is too late. The infection is not considered a reportable disease in Texas, and often hospitals or laboratories fail to alert health authorities. As many as 1,000 people a year contract the disease nationwide from contaminated water sources.
Sepsis, or septic shock, on the other hand, is a condition that occurs as the body recognizes an infection and its protective nature releases chemicals into the system to fight off the infection, but in rare cases those chemicals can cause excessive inflammation throughout the body that can lead to death.
CATTLE LOSSES UNKNOWN
While the outpouring of help for agricultural producers in affected areas of Texas and Louisiana has been substantial, many farmers and ranchers are still digging out and cleaning up, many still looking for missing livestock. More than a month after Harvey ravaged coastal regions of Texas, there is still no official count of cattle losses. The Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) reports they have turned over dead animal information to the Texas USDA Farm Service Agency office, and officials there say they are still waiting for producers and ground crews to clear debris and count additional carcasses before a definitive number can be released. But both agencies quietly admit those numbers are expected to be significant.
Some producers are comparing Harvey's devastation to that of Hurricane Ike that hit the Upper Texas coast in 2008. That storm caused an estimated $13 million in livestock losses alone, and cost producers an additional $20 million-plus to repair fences and rebuild livestock infrastructure.
In the 54 Texas counties declared disaster areas as a result of wind and flooding caused by Harvey, more than 1.2 million head of cattle were affected. Many of those animals survived and many did not, and as of this writing, no one seems prepared to venture an estimate on the numbers of animals destroyed by the ravaging wind and water of Harvey.