Last Christmas Day, temperatures began dropping and freezing rain began to spit from the sky. In warm homes and celebrating the holidays, few people had an inkling of the carnage the ice — accumulating on everything unsheltered — would wreak.

“Even when the limbs started snapping that night, I had no idea what I'd see when I looked out the door in the morning. It was so much worse than what I expected,” says Minnie Sawyer, district manager for Little River County Conservation District.

Now, several months after the ice storm, residents of 52 mostly rural, disaster-declared counties in southwest Arkansas, east Texas and Oklahoma are still amazed at the storm's destructive skills. Pictures don't do the scene justice. The scope of the damage is awesome.

“There's been a tremendous number of people coming into our office and FSA wanting to know what help is available. We're still getting new people walking in the door. This is going to be a long process. It already has been,” says Sawyer.

Pine and pecan

Arkansas' Little River County sits right on the Arkansas/Texas/Oklahoma border and has a diverse farming base of row crops, forestry and livestock. The county probably has in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 7,000 acres of pine timber that's 100 percent destroyed. The rest of it (around 200,000 acres) is damaged in some way — often badly.

“A lot of the trees still standing have their tops broken out. Foresters tell us that those trees normally won't grow any taller. They'll spread out and acquire width, but growing higher isn't likely to happen. The taller trees that are busted up can sometimes still be used for saw-logs. That's where the real value is. But the smaller timber — that from 10 to 20 years old — took the biggest hit. We lost that generation of trees,” says Otto Cowling Jr., a director of the conservation district and also an employee of the county.

Typically, the first harvest is on pine trees from 10 to 12 years old. That harvested wood is chipped and used for pulp. The next thinning is about five years later.

Most of the damage to the county's pine was to trees that were between the first and second thinning. When the stand is thinned of older trees, the canopy is lost. That exposes the smaller trees below to the elements much more. In this case, ice weighed them down and they split.

The area pecan industry was also devastated. “We have right at 2,500 acres of trees in the county. Eighty percent has damage with some 5 percent completely destroyed. The pecan growers aren't sure if or how they're going to come back,” says Sawyer.

It's estimated that just cleaning the trees up and cleaning out the rows will cost around $100 per tree. When dealing with orchards containing thousands of pecan trees, growers face a very prohibitive bill.

Then there's the consideration of not seeing a substantial crop for three to five years while the trees recover and get new growth.

“We have a lot of pecan groves that are over 100 years old around here. The damage is terrific,” says Sawyer.

With the damage done, there have been stories coming into the conservation office about several farmers taking dozers and wiping out the remains of their groves. There was nothing worth salvaging.

“The price of pulp wood is also a concern. It's in the toilet. I don't know the exact figures, but everyone is complaining because prices are steadily going down,” says Cowling.

Another problem is farmers can't get anyone to come look at the timber they have available because the timber companies (who normally buy it) are out taking care of their own mangled forests.

“Understandably, their property will get assessed and cleaned first. But the farmers and landowners are under the impression that any timber they have available is worthless. There's no shortage of timber right now.

“And there's no way to store the wood like you would grain or some other commodity. Some kind of fungus gets on it and makes the wood unusable,” says Cowling.

Future hazards

Looking forward, another worry is the coupling of all the fallen tree litter and the on-going drought. If the dry conditions the area has seen for the last three years don't change, residents are facing some major fire hazards. All the sap, kindling and exposed wood needs is a spark and the area will turn into massive bonfire.

“We typically have dry summers here anyway. Take that fact, add all the debris and a drought and it's a recipe for potential disaster. A dropped cigarette is all it would take,” says Sawyer.

The trees that are left and damaged will also be exposed to the Southern pine beetle. The beetles are in area forests every year and foresters keep a close eye on them. The beetles are usually held in check. But the beetles normally don't have exposed wood to feast on.

The clean-up

Clean-up of farms has been thwarted by too-wet ground. Around 500 miles of fence await repairs. Some 900 miles of county roads, however, are being cleared by chippers moving at about a mile per day.

County judges are faced with the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking at cutting the current 90 percent funding help for clearing this area on Feb. 27.

FEMA first said it would pay 75 percent of the cost of cleanup. It revised that up to 90 percent after the counties made it clear it would cost millions of dollars to do the job. The state will kick in 5 percent of the cost and the county is responsible for the remaining 5 percent.

“The crews are scrambling to get the roads clear, but there's no way it could be done by the end of February. You're talking about 958 miles of road in Little River County alone. There were 52 counties hit by this in all. It's so overwhelming, you almost don't know where to start. In this county we tried to open up the roads where the school buses travel first,” says Cowling.

“We have 39,000 acres of row-crop land around Walnut Bayou alone. We generally grow lots of soybeans, corn and wheat. It used to be a cotton farming area, but that ended a while back.

“Without a doubt, we're going to have flooding problems in the cropland. All the limbs and garbage will eventually end up in the waterways, dam them up and the water will spread from there. It's already doing that,” says Cowling.

Misery atop misery

“Farmers around here tend to be pretty diverse. They might have a chicken house or two, 100 acres of pine, a pecan grove. They do many things to make a living. If you lose one of those components, it's bad enough. But when you lose one every year, it's devastating,” says Sawyer.

In the midst of a three-year drought, and on the heels of a Jan. 29, 2000, snowstorm that took out hundreds of chicken houses across Arkansas, farmers can't seem to get a break.

There are some very sad stories. One of Sawyer's neighbors had 16-year-old pines planted. Those trees were to be his children's college tuition money. All gone overnight.

There are other people who had trees planted for their retirement. Those plans are finished.

“This ice storm killed a lot of dreams,” says Sawyer.

There were also cattle and poultry killed. “If there weren't generators available, growers lost young chickens. Most poultry operations have generators but running them is expensive. One poultry farmer I spoke with said it was costing $6 per hour to run one generator.”

If there is a positive, the disaster “shows how people can pull together. The big industries came in, neighbors helped each other and that's the only way it could have been done. We're moving collectively to put the pieces back together,” says Cowling.

Sawyer says it's hard to shake the memory of that night a month ago.

“It was bad enough when the limbs started popping, but when the trees and utility poles started falling, well that's when you're one step from panic. The thing is, there was nowhere to go around here that wasn't in the same dire situation. We had no choice but to just hunker down and pray that a tree didn't fall on the house.”

e-mail: david_bennett@intertec.com.