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Entire turf industry reeling from Katrina
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath destroyed much of the turf along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the entire industry supporting landscapes is reeling.
The coast had blue skies, white sand and lush greenery, but now visitors see twisted trees stripped of leaves, uprooted landscapes and brown grass. Wayne Wells, turf specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the severe winds and the presence of salt water followed by a drought is taking an extensive toll on landscapes. The service side of the industry will be impacted the longest.
“Turf that had the storm surge over it got a lot of salt content and is suffering if it received no irrigation and had very little rainfall,” Wells said. “A lot of lawns, athletic fields and golf courses will have to be reestablished once the cleanup and rebuilding are finished. That will be good for the sod industry down the road.”
Wells said lawn care operators may be the hardest hit in this industry in south Mississippi.
“Some lost structures and equipment, but the biggest thing is there are no lawns to mow,” Wells said. “Some of these guys are diversifying and using their equipment to haul debris and do tree cutting. Once the cleanup is done, they still won't have any lawns to maintain for a while.”
The suppliers who support turf management are hurting from the loss of business.
“If a lawnmower is not running, then there are no more blades to sharpen, belts to sell, no more agricultural chemicals to be used,” Wells said.
South Mississippi was home to 22 golf courses that were affected by Katrina. Some reopened once downed trees were removed and debris cleared. Others are still closed with structural losses to buildings and courses of up to 80 percent.
“If a golf course loses 100 rounds a day at $30, that's $3,000 a day in lost revenue,” Wells said. “Those that have reopened will lose much winter business as snowbirds and Coast vacationers will have no lodging and few food options, so they will find other places to go this year.”
School fields, parks and recreational areas are also struggling. In the most devastated areas, they lost facilities and equipment, and the fields are unattended, struggling with salt damage, weeds and drought.
“How do you measure the recreation and stress relief kids get playing on these fields? Getting out there in competitive play is one of the best therapies for children,” Wells said. “It is a proven fact that green space created by lawns and landscapes play heavily on human health, both physically and mentally. Lawns also provide benefits such as cooling, noise abatement, oxygen regeneration, erosion control and air filtration.”
John Cobb is owner of Mississippi Grass Nursery in Hattiesburg. He said the storm did not damage his 100 acres of sod, but it heavily damaged his 40-acre loblolly pine plantation and significantly hurt his finances.
“The first three weeks after the storm, we didn't sell anything, but I had to maintain salaries for the boys who work for me,” Cobb said. “I took a pretty big hit on payroll.”
Cobb served the Hattiesburg area south to the coast and north to Jackson. He said by four weeks after the storm, business was back to about 50 percent and close to normal by the fifth week.
“We probably won't be selling sod for a while along the coast, but there will be plenty of sprigging jobs down there. Next spring, we should start seeing a lot more activity in that area,” Cobb said. “It will take a couple more months to clear the debris and start building structures, then they'll start doing the landscapes.”
Wells said the expression “time is money” appropriately applies to sod production.
“Once a crop of sod reaches harvest maturity, every day beyond that is added expense and a reduction in net profit,” Wells said. “Inputs such as mowing, irrigation, fertilization and pest management must continue, and the value of the crop does not increase. Each of these days also is another day lost to the production of the next crop.”