North Carolina Hurricane Irene crop damage tops US$190M; FSA says 70% of Edgecombe County's 8,500 acres of tobacco crops affected, local farmers say that estimate is low

PINETOPS, North Carolina , September 1, 2011 () – Damage estimates for North Carolina inched up Thursday as teams assessing the impact of Hurricane Irene tallied the costs and two new counties were added to the list state officials thought should qualify for federal help.

Edgecombe County farmers suffered at least $44 million in crop damage from last weekend's storm, the local cooperative extension office said Thursday, pushing the statewide tally to $192 million. The farm-service agency said 70 percent of the county's 8,500 acres of tobacco was damaged. Local farmers said the estimate is low.

The statewide damage estimate was expected to grow as counties report their figures, state emergency management spokesman Ernie Seneca said.

Local governments reported that their costs for removing debris and making infrastructure repairs will be about $40 million, Gov. Beverly Perdue's office said. Martin County estimated some $37 million in damage to crops, especially tobacco and cotton, officials said Wednesday. Perdue had said earlier that a preliminary estimate of damage hit more than $71 million.

Perdue's office said it has asked the federal government to add Halifax and Lenoir counties to the state's request for individual assistance. President Barack Obama on Wednesday approved Perdue's initial request for individual assistance for Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, Dare, Hyde, Pamlico and Tyrrell counties.

Perdue sought to emphasize the storm's toll on farmers with a visit Thursday with an Edgecombe County tobacco farmer. Perdue used the visit to sign an executive order that will make it easier for state crews to remove storm debris from farmland and for farmers to burn storm-related trash.

At Pitt Farms outside Pinetops, about 100 acres of tobacco appeared lost after Irene's high winds shredded leaves and turned them yellow and brown. Farmer Burt Pitt said he was able to harvest about 20 acres of his tobacco, working even in the rain to salvage a portion of his crop.

"What can you get from this field?" Perdue asked Pitt, looking out over remaining rows of tobacco plants.

"Heartache," Pitt responded.

Other farmers visiting with Perdue asked her to intervene with the federal and state governments for help, saying insurance won't cover losses and federal programs don't offer much immediate help beyond more borrowing.

"We're going to need some kind of help," said Richard Anderson, a tobacco grower in Tarboro. "Those of us in the tobacco industry are the first to be taxed and we'd just like some of our tax dollars to come back and help us."

The governor told local agriculture officials to assemble a letter she can forward to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to highlight urgent needs and ways to end a logjam in applications for disaster relief.

"We've got to really just stand up and fight," Perdue said.

While many Outer Banks beaches were open Thursday, one was closed because of floating debris.

Corolla's beach was closed Wednesday after lifeguards saw trash, wood planks and tree branches floating in the water and worried they could hit a swimmer. Officials were waiting for the high tide to recede Thursday to determine whether the water at Corolla was safe, Currituck County Emergency Management spokesman Randall Edwards said.

"I guess it's just one of those things that happen in a big storm like that. Things that wash out to sea wash back up on the shore," Edwards said. "It just adds to the things we need to take care of."

About 15 miles south, the beach at Duck was open and workers were collecting debris that was washing up, Dare County spokeswoman Dorothy Toolan said, but all beaches were open on Bodie Island.

Farther south, county leaders visited Hatteras Island to weigh when residents who evacuated from communities like Rodanthe and Hatteras might be able to return home, Toolan said.

Boil-water advisories were removed for the length of the county's barrier islands, Toolan said.

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