CITRUS LANDS, La. – In August, the ranchlands spreading over the boot of Louisiana were dotted with hundreds of cows and calves grazing on a smorgasbord of tall marsh grasses.
But Hurricane Isaac took all that away, turning some of the best cattle country on the Mississippi River delta into brackish, foul-smelling floodwater stretching for miles. A lot of the livestock raised here by a handful of ranching families drowned in Isaac's storm surge along with birds, snakes and other wildlife. The storm overwhelmed weak levees protecting this farm country south of New Orleans.
Isaac came ashore as a Category 1 hurricane pushing more than 12 feet of storm surge and monsoon-like rains, swamping some communities with flooding to many rooftops. The storm claimed seven lives, including two drowning deaths in Plaquemines Parish. Although far less destructive than Hurricane Katrina, Isaac underscored Louisiana's vulnerability to hurricanes with some towns flooding for the fourth time in seven years.
"It's heart-breaking," said Charmion Delesdermier Cosse, a third-generation rancher with about 300 mother cows in Citrus Lands. "This year was probably the best calf crop we've seen in a long time."
South Louisiana's cattle industry consists mostly of pockets of ranchers along the coast sandwiched between the Mississippi and Texas borders. Almost all of them raise calves to be sold to others to be fattened for market. It is a region with its own flair.
A Louisiana a cowpoke is just as likely to work the herd by airboats as four-wheelers, and graze cattle in cane brakes and gooey marshes — unlike brethren in Texas or further out West who ride herd on the dry, high plains.
The lowland cattle are different too, a derivation of the heat-tolerant and bug-resistant hump-backed Brahman cattle found in India. The animals are striking to come across in the open marshes, standing like water buffalo up to their necks in the wetlands.
For centuries, Cajuns of French ancestry and Spaniards wintered cattle in the bountiful marsh country rimming the Gulf of Mexico. In summers, to beat the stifling heat, they would send the herds northward to Louisiana's upland plains and pines.
But Isaac dealt a blow to the ranching trade, which already had diminished over the years as Louisiana became an oil patch center. Officials estimate more than 400 head of cattle drowned in Isaac, though a final count is pending.
The hurricane hit hard at the spread of ranchland known as the Citrus Lands in Plaquemines Parish. Ranching began here after World War II when the Citrus Lands Co. began reclaiming 25,000 acres of marsh.
Dr. Mike Strain, a rancher and veterinarian who also is the state's agriculture secretary, said Isaac dealt a personal blow — his family had raised cattle at Citrus Lands.
After Isaac, Strain flew by helicopter over his family's old cattle pens. "It's very personal," he said.
Despite the proximity and danger of the Gulf of Mexico — much of low-lying Plaquemines is surrounded by the Gulf — Strain said there was good reason to ranch the region: rich soil brought down from the Midwest via the wide river, feeding grasslands all around.
"Think about it," he said. "When you get off on the western side of the Mississippi River, that's where Great Plains begin. That's one of the most fertile lands in America."
Robert Joyner of the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association agreed. "It's a great place to run cattle — when it's out of hurricane season."
His organization helped airlift hay to levees for stranded cows and also brought in animal feed in an 18-wheeler for shell-shocked livestock wallowing in Isaac's waters.
It's an economic blow, somewhere around $1,000 a head of cattle, not including the added costs of mending fences and restoring pastures, said Alan Vaughn, the Plaquemines county agent. He said the ranchers are being forced to sell off their herds at a bad time because the market is already inundated by cattle sold off because of the U.S. drought. And when the Citrus Lands ranchers are ready to re-stock their pastures, cattle prices will be high, he said.
State officials say flooded ranchers may be eligible for loan-interest loans and direct disaster assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This is the fourth time the Citrus Lands ranches have been flooded.
Coastal land loss in Louisiana is occurring at one of the fastest rates in the world. Geologists say about 1,900 square miles of land have been lost since the 1930s. Unless billions of dollars are spent to shore up the Mississippi Delta, the loss is expected to continue.
Cosse said her father raised cattle — known as "riverbank cattle" — outside the levees altogether. In Isaac, the handful of old-timers who still raise cattle outside levees fared well because the surge, not deep enough to drown the animals, came in and then flowed out.
But in Citrus Lands, once the surge got over the levees, the Gulf's salty water became trapped behind them, leaving hundreds of cattle dying of thirst and hunger while struggling to stay afloat in waters which likely reached 10 feet or higher in places. An estimated 40 percent of the 1,000 cattle on Citrus Lands drowned.
"The Dutch — they're below sea level like we are; they live and survive; they build lock systems, levee systems and keep the sea water out. Why can't we do it?" said Minos Scarabin, a rancher and Cosse's ex-husband. On a tour of his pastures in an airboat with reporters, he passed a couple of dead cows lying in the water. He works his own cattle in the Citrus Lands ranch now.
Despite the repeated flooding from hurricanes, Cosse said she's not giving up easily.
"When it's been in your family for years, it's kind of in your blood," Cosse said, adding she hopes to get a new bank loan and continue ranching.
Many locals, meanwhile, insist the cattle deaths could have been avoided.
The levees here are small dikes built in the 1960s and 1970s when the Citrus Lands Co. drained off the marsh to turn it into ranchland. Today, ranchers like Cosse lease 1,000-acre spreads from the Citrus Lands Co. Two stretches in Plaquemines — Citrus Lands and a suburban area on the other side of the Mississippi — saw major flooding. Both areas were protected by public-private levees. Citrus Lands did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The flooding also took out Louisiana Highway 23, the only road south toward the mouth of the Mississippi River on the parish's west bank. The area is home to a string of farms, towns and industrial facilities, including two refineries.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser had announced a plan to improve the Citrus Lands levees shortly before Isaac struck, but work couldn't get under way in time. The Army Corps of Engineers has said it will work with local authorities to build up the levees.
Lingering floodwaters were still being drained days after Isaac had passed. Marsh buggies — big excavators designed to work in the marsh — have been scooping out breaches in the back levee to let water flow back into the Gulf. But with the Citrus Lands below-sea-level, the pastures were expected to drain slowly; eventually, the remaining water will have to be pumped out.
For now, Cosse and the rest of the ranchers still have loose cattle to round up.
"There's over a 100 head on the back levee," she said, sitting in her home just high enough off ground not to have been flooded. "There's some that keep coming out at night and getting on the highway."