South Texas is battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Alex, anticipated to make landfall in either the southern part of the state or northern Mexico sometime late today, according to the National Weather Service.
Forecast calls for tropical storm sustained winds with possible gusts to hurricane strength from Brownsville/Harlingen to the coast. Sustained hurricane force winds are possible in the southernmost Gulf waters.
Storm surge could be three to five feet along South Padre Island. A more southerly track would reduce that surge, according to weather service reports. Squall-type showers are likely as early as Wednesday afternoon and through Wednesday night. Flooding rains likely will be more prevalent in the Rio Grande Valley.
A weather situation this severe “could not come at a worse time,” says Rod Santa Ana, Texas AgriLife media specialist at Weslaco. “Our row crops — grain sorghum, corn and cotton — are close to harvest,” he says. “About half of the grain sorghum is harvested but some had a late start because of spring rains.”
Harvest typically is in full swing for row crops by July 16. “We have some open cotton bolls, not many but some. Sunflower harvest has just begun and we have a long way to go.”
Santa Ana says the potential of Lower Rio Grande Valley row crops is excellent. “We have high quality crops in the field so we don’t need a weather situation.”
Acreage abandonment in four counties — Willacy, Hidalgo, Cameron and Star — has been nearly non-existent, 0.21 percent, representing less than $50,000 in losses from almost a half-million planted acres of corn, grain sorghum and cotton.
Santa Ana says the excellent potential for row crops follows a good year for watermelons, onions and other vegetable crops. “Our vegetables are all but done,” he says.
“We don’t know what to expect from Hurricane Alex. Anything can happen. If winds knock stalks down, we can forget it. And heavy rains make it hard to get back into the fields.”
Rio Grande Valley farmers have been hard hit the past two seasons and were looking for a good crop year. “In 2008, they had an excellent crop and Hurricane Dolly hit,” Santa Ana says. “In 2009, drought got us and now Alex is threatening. We hope it turns south.”
Jeff Stapper, Nueces County AgriLife Extension agent, up the coast near Corpus Christi, expects less damage but says some crops will be vulnerable. “We have about 60 percent of our grain sorghum mature and almost ready for harvest,” he says. “We have another 40 percent planted later that’s just beginning to color.”
The early crop could be subject to lodging from high winds, he says. “A lot of rain may cause cotton to shed squares,” he says, “and we could get from 5 to 10 inches of rain. That’s more than we want now, especially on grain sorghum that’s been treated with glyphosate as a harvest aid. We don’t have a lot of that but we have some.”
He says cotton has not begun to open. “We may be vulnerable with some crops but we could be worse off.”
Clyde Crumley, Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist in Wharton, a bit south and west of Houston, expects a lot of rain from Alex.
“Forecast the next 2 days calls for a 90 percent chance and Friday and Saturday are both at 60 percent. Just how much we get, who knows exactly.” He says predictions indicate 3 inches or more through Wednesday.
“As far as cotton is concerned, most fields are right at cutout, so a good drink will really help on boll fill. But too much water could hurt us with water logging and subsequent nutrient (potassium) problems. Grain sorghum and corn harvest is right around the corner so a little rain won't hurt; too much and we could see harvest problems and/or head sprouting in sorghum and lodging in corn.”
He says wind could be the key. High winds could cause lodging problems for grain crops. “However I don't think there is supposed to be a great deal of wind. We’re on the wet side of the storm.”
Travis Miller, Associate Department Head and Extension Program Leader for Soil and Crop Sciences, says South Texas will be most vulnerable to the storm. “Lodging problems are possible from high wind, and muddy, wet conditions will make it hard to salvage crops,” he says.
Miller says grain sorghum will be the most vulnerable crop, followed by corn and then cotton. “We don’t have much cotton open yet,” he says.
Statewide, Miller says the storm could be an overall benefit, especially for cotton acreage. “If we don’t get 10 to 15 inches, this rain should help cotton,” he says. “If we get a lot of rain where we have an excess of nitrogen, cotton growth can get away from us.”
He says the nitrogen and moisture will push top growth of the plant so it starts fruiting while the bottom of the plant is maturing bolls. “It could be a harvest aid nightmare,” he says.
Grain sorghum is ready for harvest in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and is vulnerable. “If it blows down, it’s hard to get,” Miller says.
Santa Ana says Alex will be the first taste of what weather experts expect to be a busy hurricane season. “We could have 20 this year,” he says.