On a crop field drenched by Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters, farmer Jimmy Burch Sr. waited patiently for Gov. Roy Cooper to arrive and see the damage.
Nearby, community members looked towards the sky as a helicopter landed near Warren Road. After getting a bird’s-eye view of the land, Cooper stepped off and met Burch, owner of Burch Farms, a Sampson County-based business. The visit was one of several stops made in the eastern region of the state. Some of the others included Scotland and Jones counties.
“It’s nice that he thinks about us enough to come out here,” Burch said. “Most of the time, people don’t think about Eastern North Carolina and people don’t realize that this is the economic engine of eastern North Carolina.”
During the Friday afternoon visit, Cooper said emergency officials are still working to help residents who are dealing with flooding problems. One incident involved a levee breaking in Bladen County.
“I’m so grateful for the first responders who were able to get out there and help them,” Cooper said. “We’re also grateful for people working so hard by volunteering in shelters for people who have lost their homes and who have seen significant flood damage.”
Cooper added that storm is also hard on the state’s economy.
“The number one driver of our economy is agriculture,” Cooper said. “We know that farmers have taken a substantial hit over the last few years, in fact. When you look at storms before, then having Matthew, then this year — farmers have really taken a hit. You combine that with issues involving tariffs and other concerns that they have to face, we know that this is going to be a substantial loss in our economy.”
Cooper has been meeting with federal officials and is seeking 100 percent reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for upfront response costs to cover the first 30 days because of the severity of the hurricane and the aftermath. While talking about continuing efforts to make sure people receive FEMA assistance, he expects about 70,000 people to apply. Cooper believes it’s important to do and that funding will be needed in other areas.
“We’ve got a long road ahead for North Carolina,” he said. “We‘ve got a lot of parts of our economy that are hurting. We’ve got people who are not going to have a place to live. We have to deal with the situation of getting our economy started back up again. One of the things that I wanted to do today, in addition to meeting with people at the shelter, I wanted to come and see firsthand the situation with our farmers.”
The General Assembly will be called back into session to unlock funding to help. To assist farmers with potential federal assistance, Cooper plans to meet with Sonny Perdue, U.S. secretary of agriculture, along with N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. Both Perdue and Troxler were in Duplin County on Monday (see related story in Wednesday’s edition).
“We’re going to see what we can do from a federal and state perspective to help our farmers,” Cooper said.
Cooper was joined by Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau. Together they met with farmers impacted by Florence.
“It’s hard to say at this point what the damage is,” Wooten said. “With many of our farmers, we’re just now getting out to assess what the damage is. Obviously, there’s still a lot of roads that are cut in two and farmers haven’t been able to access what all the damage is. Certainly in the next two or three weeks, we’ll assess that and we’re in the process of doing that now.”
Wooten said the storm couldn’t have come at a worse time for North Carolina when it comes to agriculture.
“We got about 40 to 50 percent of our tobacco still in the field and 80 to 90 percent, sweet potatoes,” he said. “We’re the number one producing state in the nation.”
He is encouraging farmers to report crop damage, by visiting their local agriculture agencies.
“To get any kind of state or federal help, you’re going to need accurate numbers,” he said. “You can’t just open up a checkbook and start writing checks to help folks. You have to base it on losses. So you have to report those losses.”
Inside his truck, Burch drove Wooten and Cooper around fields set up for crops such as beets, turnips, broccoli and collards. Burch estimates the damage to be $1 million. He believes it’s going to take a few years for farmers to recover.
“For some of these guys, it may take them seven or eight years to get over it,” Burch said. “It took me five years to get over Hurricane Floyd, financially.”
After the land drys, Burch Farms will replant crops, with hopes of a harvest before the end of the year, before cooler weather arrives.
“It takes a while to get over this, but I’ll get over it,” Burch said. “It’s like watching one of your family members die. That’s what the farm is. It’s a part of you.”
Jared Burch, Jimmy’s son, also spent time meeting Cooper and other officials. Like his father, he’s staying optimistic about the situation.
“I feel bad, but you see people on TV who have it a lot worse,” Jared said. “Everything they have is under water.”
Rep. Larry M. Bell was one of several officials present during Cooper’s visit. He also spoke about funding efforts to help farmers, which could be started through a legislative rainy day fund.
“I think it was great for him to visit with us and see the actual things going on,” Bell said.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.