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Green industry is reeling from Hurricane Katrina
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Hurricane Katrina literally blew away millions of dollars of the state's horticulture industry centered in coastal counties hardest hit by the storm.
"Before the storm, Mississippi had close to a billion dollar horticulture industry," said Kerry Johnson, area horticulture agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service in George County. "Several hundred retailers, greenhouses, landscapers and nurseries operated in south Mississippi, and the industry had rebounded from the setback it experienced after Sept. 11."
After Katrina marched through the state and its neighbors, the industry is reeling with infrastructure devastation, destroyed inventory and lost markets. Greenhouses have been knocked down or damaged, plants are blown over, broken, uprooted and submerged, growing areas have been flooded, and offices and computer systems destroyed.
Many producers in the industry lost both their businesses and their homes.
"We have severe damage and destruction to the coastal nursery industry, and it's hard to put a dollar value on it, but we are assessing it now," Johnson said.
Norman Winter, Extension horticulture specialist, said early estimates show a $17 million to $19 million loss to producers, but that number can easily grow.
"Katrina brought devastating damage to the industry's structures, but she dealt a much harder blow to the retail garden centers, landscape construction, maintenance and markets," Winter said. "Growers who survived the hurricane found themselves sitting with thousands of dollars of plants that were headed to the Gulf Coast or New Orleans and now there's no place to sell them."
Johnson said because nurseries and greenhouses work with live plants, they cannot hold their inventory for long.
"We've lost cash flow for months at a minimum. One of the nurseries told me this is the first week he has ever recorded zero sales during the summer," Johnson said.
Winter said gardening halted in the weeks after the storm as people dug out of the rubble, watched the news, helped others and were careful about spending money.
In response to the loss of markets, Johnson said out-of-state retailers and organizations are being asked to consider buying Mississippi products.
"I am highly recommending that buyers of nursery goods make it their goal to buy Mississippi products, now more than ever," Johnson said. "There is a need. People outside the region who want to help can do so now by purchasing our state's horticultural products."
Businesses that plan to rebuild also must decide the fate of their employees. With the infrastructure of many of these horticulture business destroyed and without customers coming to spend money, many businesses have no way to keep their employees.
Winter said the horticulture industry should get an economic boom when companies and homeowners rebuild, and landscaping again becomes important. Some estimate it will be February before that happens, but others are optimistic that Christmas will bring a better market.