Dick and Sandra Tunnell are accustomed to the damage and heartache that comes from time to time with farming at 5 feet above sea level. But Hurricane Isabel "was certainly the worst we’ve seen."

Isabel brought surges of salt water 5-feet high in the Tunnell’s yard and left scorched crops in the field.

Five days after the storm, the Tunnells and many of their neighbors in Hyde County, N.C., were without power, working to salvage their flooded homes, operating on generators that kept food from spoiling and a small fan running while they wondered about damage the salt water caused to their cropland.

Hurricane Isabel tore the Outer Banks to tatters, and continued across the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds in North Carolina before moving on to damage Virginia. Hyde County sits on the mainland across from the Outer Banks.

Tunnell had fall vegetable crops in the field, some ready for harvest when Isabel came calling.

"Based on what I’ve seen, the fall crop is a complete loss," the 50-year-old farmer and former president of the North Carolina Soybean Association says. Salt water caused cotton — which was already two to three weeks behind schedule — to drop leaves and it completely covered the soybeans.

As soon as the land dries out, he’ll begin soil testing to determine just how deep the salt penetrated into the ground. But Tunnell worries more about the blow to the already-depressed economy of rural eastern North Carolina.

The Tunnells were holed up across the street at the house where he was raised when the Category 2 hurricane hit. Initially, 110 mph winds came blowing from the northeast.

Sandra Tunnell tells it best:

"Prior to the eye coming over, we got more than 100 mph wind gusts with no surge or rain. Once the eye passed over at 2:30, we were feeling pretty good, like maybe we had escaped the worst of it, and then we got a call from neighbors. Dick was outside in the yard.

‘Do what you can, there’s 5-feet of water downtown and it’s coming your way,’ Sandra remembers her neighbor saying. "I said, ‘We must have heard you wrong because it has hardly rained.’ They said, ‘No, you didn’t hear us wrong. There’s 5 feet of water headed your way.’

"In 30 minutes we watched it come up this town ditch and take over the yard," Sandra recalled a week after the storm hit, talking over a crew of workers tearing up water-soaked joists underneath the house. They were treating everything with Clorox to hold down mold.

At 4:30 on Thursday, Sept. 18, the surf was still surging. LP tanks floated by and "a baby deer swam by our house," Sandra says.

Adds Dick: "After the lull, the wind shifted to the southeast, which blew water into our farms here. We needed a western wind to take it back out, but it never really went to a westerly or northwesterly wind, so the water just kept coming."

Wind knocked down a big tree in the front and took a toll on the pecan trees, but the real damage came from the salt water surge. Mounds of cornstalks and debris from damaged houses lined the roads.

"We watched the salt water come up in Hurricane Floyd, but it was like heavy rain and it started to recede almost as fast as it got here," Sandra says. "This time, it stayed. When we went to bed, it had only receded down to the bottom steps of the house."

After the storm, Dick worked to save corn as salt water surged above the floor of the grain bins. "We worked hard all day to see if we could save the corn," Dick says, his eyes heavy with exhaustion more than a week into the cleanup.

In seven of the last eight years, Tunnell has seen salt water rush over his land. He had just about worked the salt out of the land from the last storm when this one hit. "When salt comes on our land, it gets tied up in the organic matter and it kills, and restricts the plants’ ability to take up nutrients."

With this in mind, Tunnell rotates the crops among his fields to manage the salinity in the soils after a storm. "There are no miracle crops to rid the soil of salt in one year. You can apply gypsum, but you’ve got to have rain to wash it through."

Cotton handles salinity better than the other crops, but a minimal five to eight inches of rain ahead of the storm wasn’t enough to keep it from defoliating an already-late cotton crop.

Tunnell had 475 acres of fresh market snap beans, most of the acreage ready for harvest over the next several weeks, when the hurricane hit. Tunnell let the beans sit in the field the day of the storm, despite the impending hurricane. Snap beans must be cooled after harvest. Without power, Tunnell would lose the beans anyway. Salt water had the same effect on the snap beans as it would have had on a slug. "I knew the crop was gone," Tunnell says. "I’ve been through this several times." Cabbage, squash, eggplant and cucumber acreage was also devastated. Crop insurance isn’t available for most of those vegetable crops. He also grows 200 acres of soybeans and 250 acres of cotton.

"The fall vegetable crop is a complete loss," Tunnell told North Carolina Interim Ag Commissioner Britt Cobb when he visited the Tunnell farm and the area at the first of the week. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley also toured the area and promised recovery assistance.

"It’s going to take some cost-sharing help, soil sampling and working with the FSA office," Tunnell says. "We’re going to need some type of help between low-interest loans and some grant money. It’s going to be hard."

Hyde County has 5,000 residents. This is a farming and a fishing village. Most farmers and fishermen were still recovering from the hurricanes in 1999.

"Yeah, my main concern is providing for my family," Tunnell says, "but rural America is already beat up.

"In 2003, we had to replant corn, soybeans and cotton twice in this area," Tunnell says. "Most of our row crops are off in yield. It seems like we have a disaster every year."

Tunnell believes there will need to be tools in place to farm again next year. "We need a disaster bill in a time frame as quickly as possible. And we farmers need to take advantage of any programs that are offered to us."

Tunnell is chairman of the Hyde County Board of Education. The school system has 700 students in grades K-12. "You have to be concerned with the tax base, the affordability of education and the services the county has to provide."

He wonders about the future of the area. A long-overdue dike project had just started a new phase to stop the storm surge. "The dike is not a cure for six or seven-foot surge, but it’s better than nothing."

Sitting in his farm office after the hurricane, Tunnell shows the strain of an exhausted man. He comes from strong stock. His father, Gilbert Tunnell, was a farmer and a leader in the community. Tunnell’s father passed away when he was 16. His mother, with the help of neighbors, picked up the reins and carried on. Tunnell returned to the farm after graduating from North Carolina State. He and Sandra have been married for 28 years and have two children. His son, David, is a student at N.C. State. His daughter, Jamie, works on nearby Ocracoke Island. The farm is now in its third generation.

"No matter how strong you think you may be, the mental strain keeps wearing on you," Dick Tunnell says.

"We’re praying for strength and good health right now," Sandra Tunnell says. "Even though we had crop losses and land losses, we can come back. There are those that won’t be able to come back."

"Everybody’s tested. It’s another test of our faith and we intend to survive," Dick Tunnell says.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com