Hurricane threat to industry passes

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags New orleans Louisiana

Sugar, coffee and other industries based in Louisiana under threat from Hurricane Gustav could breath a sigh of relief today as they appear to have escaped a pounding.

There had been fears that the hurricane, which ripped through Cuba before hitting the US, would echo the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina around New Orleans almost three years ago to the day.

But Gustav weakened to a category two storm before making landfall west of New Orleans on Monday and was later downgraded to a tropical storm.

Sugarcane is a major industry in the state of Louisiana, worth $1.7bn to its cane growers and raw sugar factories. It produces about 20 percent of the sugar beets and cane grown in the US with about 27,000 employees involved in the production and processing alone, according to the American Sugar Cane League.

The crop is produced on nearly 450,000 acres of land in the state and there were some reports of fields of sugarcane being flattened by the storm.

Sugar analysts said they thought the state’s crop had probably not sustained enough damage from Gustav to affect prices, according to Reuters. However, they stressed that it took several days to assess damage from Hurricane Rita, and it took three weeks after Hurricane Katrina had flooded New Orleans.

Rebuilt levees also appear to be holding, sparing the devastating floodwater the occurred when Hurricane Katrina hit the city on August 29, 2005, causing an estimated $80bn in damage.

The city had to be evacuated due to flooding and New Orleans' shipping terminals and other facilities were damaged.

New Orleans is one of the US’s largest coffee-handling ports. The Mississippi River, the cheapest route for the shipping of many crops and other commodities destined for overseas and domestic markets, was inaccessible in parts. Commodity supplies, especially sugar and coffee, were disrupted.

Preparing for the storm

Food conveyor manufacturer Intralox, a leading supplier of modular plastic conveyor belts was among the food industry firms caught up in the disaster three years ago.

But the company said that a combination of disaster planning, quick adjustments and employee initiative helped the company get back to dealing with new orders within three weeks. It was able to use its operations in Australia, Brazil, Japan and Europe to fill in the gap in production and customer service.

Yesterday, Edel Blanks, general manager of Intralox, said that measures were already in place for Hurricane Gustav. They included a back-up customer service center in Dallas, Texas, which is ready to take orders, an alternative assembly and inventory location, ready to produce orders as well as back-up IT systems.

The McIlhenny Company, which makes Tabasco products, was also prepared. It said that its Avery Island operation lay directly in the projected path of the hurricane. However the plant and warehouse are situated approximately 8.5 feet above sea level and have been built to withstand 140 mph winds.

It said in a statement: “McIlhenny Company recently completed several major projects initiated in the wakes of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, including a levee built to withstand an 18 foot storm surge in the area and a water pumping system, intended to further protect our enterprise from future hurricanes.”

IFT

The food industry has strong links with New Orleans, where this year’s Institute of Food Technologists conference was held. Organisers said it has historically been a “great host city” for IFT members and it was last in New Orleans in 2005, just three weeks before Katrina.

During the 2008 Annual Meeting & Food Expo, IFT members helped to fight hunger in South Louisiana by participating in community-based programs to advance IFT’s mission of providing safe, plentiful and nutritious food to those in need through a variety of programs.

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