Amish volunteers helping rebuild after Ike

February 18, 2009 9:15:38 AM PST
Except for her sunglasses and cell phone, the woman in the white cap and long flowing skirt looked like a pioneer from another era as she swung a hammer to secure barbed wire to a fence post. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

She is among the Amish volunteers who have traveled to the Gulf Coast to rebuild hundreds of miles of fence torn down by Hurricane Ike on Texas cattle ranches.

The storm surge submerged an estimated 600 square miles in Jefferson and Chambers counties, leaving dead cows hanging from tree limbs as high as 20 feet, authorities said.

About 1,500 of the 20,000 cows were found dead along roadways, and another 2,500 more are missing. The rest had to float and scramble for their lives, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

When the saltwater finally receded, cattle with various brands were discovered roaming down roads and onto people's property. Cowboys and helicopters then joined forces to corral the cattle, but ranchers cannot return them to their pastures until the fences are restored. Many ranchers have resorted to selling their herds or renting pasture land elsewhere.

"This could break some of our ranchers," said Tyler Fitzgerald, an agricultural extension agent in Chambers County. Not only do ranchers have to bear the cost of rebuilding their fences, he explained, but also of supplying food and fresh water since the saltwater killed most of the grass and left water supplies salty.

That is why Fellowship of Christian Farmers organized the relief effort: "Building fences in Texas until the cows come home."

Among the volunteers answering the call have been groups of Amish who learned of the ranchers' plight from their community newsletter in Elkhart and LaGrange counties in Indiana. That's the area that President Barack Obama last week singled out as having the nation's highest unemployment rate.

Many of the 35 Amish volunteers helped out even though they are facing their own financial crises at home. They have either been laid off or had their hours severely cut at factories that manufacture recreational vehicles.

While some Amish still farm, many more earn their income at the factories or their own small businesses because the Amish communities don't own enough farmland to spread among their large broods, said Margaret Guingerich, who recently quit her factory job to marry.

Leonard Bontrager, 21, of LaGrange, said in a Dutch accent that he was laid off from his factory job six months ago: "Don't have anything to do at home. So came here," he said.

None of the volunteers was surprised to hear that Obama visited their hometown to push for the stimulus package because unemployment had risen from 4.7 percent to 15.3 percent there in the past year, as buyers have grown wary of purchasing such expensive, gas-guzzling vehicles. But they didn't watch Obama speak on television. Their religion dictates a simpler life, with none of their houses at home having electricity, let alone a high definition TV.

"Lot of people are out of work," said Kevin Hochstetler, 28, pushing back his large-brimmed straw hat, wondering how much longer he will keep his factory job. But he came to help Texas ranchers "to return a favor" because other volunteers helped his town after a powerful tornado hit in 2007.

The Amish each paid $250 to travel to Chambers County on trains and buses, as the horse and buggy is their normal mode of transportation. They slept here on cots separated by plastic blue tarps in an old school building while the ranchers supplied their food and fencing materials. New replacements will work until the job is completed.

None of the Amish who left for home Thursday expressed any regrets after working about a week building several miles of fence, while having the previous Sunday off to do a little touring.

"This was the first time I saw the ocean and rode a ferry," said a grinning 18-year-old farmer, Aaron Easch. "This trip was also my first time on a train. When I got off, I felt like I was still swaying."

Jean Lagow, who with her twin sister raises cattle on a 7,000-acre spread in Chambers County, said ranchers are grateful for the hundred miles of fence that all the volunteers have erected since they started coming in January.

"What they can complete in a week," said one ranch hand, "would take others most of the summer to do."

      Headline check | 100 most recent local stories | News alerts
            Slideshow archive | ABC13 wireless | Help solve crimes