As part of our ongoing reporting on flood recovery in Louisiana, Betsy Shepherd set out to tell the story of Guidry Brangus Ranch, a family-owned cattle farm in rural Vermilion Parish. Struggling to recover after being submerged by floodwater last August, Shannon Guidry planned to sell his farm. But just a few weeks after the interview, another tragedy struck - and this agriculture recovery story took a turn that no one could have imagined.
When Rhonda Guidry was a senior in high school, she and a friend made a vow to never marry somebody from Vermilion Parish - they wanted to move on from the life they knew.
But Rhonda Guidry did end up marrying someone from this rural stretch of coastal Louisiana farming communities - Shannon Guidry, her husband of 33 years.
"We were married about 6 months and he came home one day and he said I want to get into farming, and I was horrified," Rhonda recalls. "I grew up on a farm, but that’s just not the life I was envisioning. And then my dad reminded me that it was a good life. And so I supported him."
Rhonda started her career as a full-time nurse, while Shannon founded Guidry Brangus Ranch. The 444-acre farm houses 160 registered Brangus and Akaushi cows used for breeding and beef production.
August storms dumped torrential rain on southwest Louisiana. Because of coastal erosion and sinking land, Vermilion Parish was submerged. “This flood put me in a place that I’ve never been before. I was frazzled," Shannon Guidry said.
Rhonda saw the stress her husband was under. "I had never seen him like that. He was just trying to figure out how was he going to take care of his animals."
The water rose so rapidly that Shannon could not evacuate his herd. He used a boat to bring feed to his cows, but even the high ground was underwater. "Those cows over here were in the water for a week," Shannon said. "There was probably a foot of water there and I’m assuming they just laid down in it. It was awful to watch, but there was nothing you could do about it."
When flood waters subsided, there was long-term damage to deal with. The grass was dead, and there was nothing for the cattle to eat. Shannon had to transport his herd and board them off site because the flood turned his grazing pastures into mud pits. Shannon had to truck 160 cattle hundreds of miles to a farm in north Louisiana, where they stayed for several months.
"I was scared we were going to kill them on the truck," Shannon said.
Only one of Shannon’s cows drowned during the flood, but he lost 8 more to disease and illness in transport. The stress of the flood also caused his heifers to miscarry and stunted the growth of his calves. "We lost that August and September grazing, which is what we really need to finish those calves, and that’s what really hurt," he said.
I interviewed Shannon in early December. There was more flooding, this time 10 inches. Though damage was minor by comparison, extreme weather and fear of it were doubly straining. "We don’t get two-inch rains anymore, we get six-inch rains, we get 26 inch rains," Shannon said. "The climate’s changing. We get severe storms."
Local experts coined the term “rainxiety” to describe the post-traumatic stress experienced by many flood victims. I asked Shannon whether he could tell if his cattle were stressed.
"Oh you see it. Everything we’re giving them, they’re walking it off. They want something better. Right now, they’re just crazy," he said.
The August floods caused a huge emotional toll and the financial loss was too much, so Shannon made the difficult decision to retire from farming after 32 years. "I can’t keep up with this anymore. I’m going to sell this. This is all for sale. I told my wife, this is not working."
Then something tragic happened. Less than a week after I talked to him, Shannon was in a fatal accident on the farm. Rhonda recalls what happened:
"December 14 was a typical day for us. About 12:30 my phone started ringing. I ignored it at first. By the third time. I had to call and see what was going on. Casey [Shannon’s farmhand] said Mrs. Rhonda there’s been an accident: the bull attacked us."
Andrew Granger serves as Vermilion Parish livestock field agent for Louisiana State University’s agricultural center. He worked closely with Shannon over the years, especially after the flood. Though he was not present, he recalls the details of the accident.
"The bull started acting up and attacked his hired hand and he stepped in to help," Granger explained. "The bull got on him and messed up his leg really bad."
Rhonda recalls, "The nurse came on. I said I want to know what’s going on, don’t beat around the bush. And so he said his artery’s been severed."
Shannon Guidry lost too much blood, and died.
Rhonda was in shock, "My heart is really broken. But I have such comforting memories and I know he’s always with me."
The floods did not cause the bull attack that claimed Shannon Guidry’s life; but Andrew Granger says repeat flooding may have exacerbated the bull’s aggression, "The stress on the cattle releases fight or flight hormones, cortical steroids are one of them we’re concerned about. If they feel cornered, they may come at you."
Rhonda agrees. "We had a bull that stayed in chest deep water for 8 days. He was angry. This was his reactive mode."
With Rhonda’s permission, Casey put down the bull. There have been no other reported incidents of livestock aggression since the floods.
Before he died, Shannon had planned to sell the farm he loved. Rhonda figured after his death, that’s what she would do. “My first initial reaction was the cattle have to go, because I always told him don’t you dare leave me with this farm, I don’t know what I’d do with it," she says. "And when the dust finally settled, I realized what he had put into this. I’m just not going to let his legacy die. I’m going to give it a shot.”
Local ranchers are mentoring Rhonda as she reacquaints herself with farm life. And as a nurse who works closely with patients suffering from PTSD, Rhonda feels up to the challenge of rehabilitating the farm, and her life. “I never embraced those animals until now and I realize what his passion was," Rhonda says.
And despite the setbacks and struggles of 2016, Rhonda feels confident this will be a turnaround year. "Whether its politics or the flood, we need to embrace what we’ve learned and what we’ve experienced and try to find the positive," she says. "It has to get better, and it will.”
This story was made possible by Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.