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Addressing a need: Faculty, students turn research focus to hurricanes

1 year after Michael cut through Georgia, storms show a connection between tree health and the state’s economy


Traveling down the pin-straight rural South Georgia highway, David Dickens could see the damage even before they reached the property line.

Dickens and David Clabo, both faculty at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, were on the road to survey the damage done by hurricane Michael one year before. But they weren’t looking for houses or businesses flattened by the wind—they were looking for trees.

Across South Georgia, the forestry industry plays a large role in the economy. It’s the second-largest industry in the state in terms of wages and salaries, and forestland covers almost 25 million acres, or two-thirds of the state.

Unfortunately, that also means that when a powerful hurricane like Michael blows through rural Southwest Georgia, tall stands of pine trees bear the brunt of the winds and the damage can be seen for miles. The effects can be devastating for forest landowners and the forest products industry.

“You have trees leaning, some broken-top trees, uprooted trees, and some trees that are literally on the ground,” said Dickens. “Storm-damaged stands are a hardship for landowners, foresters, loggers and the wood products industry.”

Dickens and Clabo have been traveling to visit areas affected by hurricane Michael as part of a study to help landowners determine the best course of action after a large-scale storm. Their work is one of many ways faculty and students at the University of Georgia are helping the state recover from catastrophic storms. The expertise and research ranges from large stands of pine trees to individual live oak trees and even trees in urban and suburban areas, where damage from a storm-affected trees easily affects other property—even lives.

Bottom line, though, Warnell faculty and students are documenting major hurricane damage and recovery efforts. For example, no guidelines exist for landowners who lose thousands of acres of pine forest—but Dickens and Clabo aim to change that. Here is a look at some of the ways Warnell faculty and students are making a difference.


Old growth vs. new

Known for their sweeping branches and curtains of Spanish moss, live oaks often connect with people on a personal level. Even so, said forestry student Hannah Morris, there is very little research on the them.

As part of her doctoral work, Morris has been traveling to Georgia’s uninhabited islands, where she is part of a project that has mapped out plots of live oak trees to determine their age, size and distribution. Not long after one such survey in 2016 on St. Catherines Island, hurricane Matthew moved through the coast before making landfall in South Carolina. Morris had similar timing the following year, when Hurricane Irma tracked across Florida and up the east coast not long after another survey.

“I had just done a survey and then Matthew hit and I noticed the forest looked completely different. So, I surveyed again, and then (the following year) after Irma hit,” she said. “And that has allowed us to look at the trees’ mortality.”

Morris was already interested in live oaks’ regeneration, which happens two ways: They drop acorns and also produce new sprouts through established roots. But after surveying the damage done by the hurricanes, it appeared the live oaks in the forest were disproportionately damaged.

“It’s concerning because we’re not seeing seedlings transition to later stages because we have deer eating them,” she said. “So, the deer are taking the younger seedlings, and the storms are taking the larger, more mature trees.”

Morris’ research is ongoing and is considering what effects decades of hurricanes can have on live oak trees. She is also looking at the differences between the trees’ regeneration methods and whether one is more important than the other. “We’re trying to think about this on a long-term scale, after 50 more of these storms.”


A community perspective

When a storm hits a city or town, it’s not simply the wind that causes damage to structures—it’s the wind blowing objects into them. If a tree has diseased limbs or an insufficient root system, there is preventative maintenance that can be done before the storm hits that can help mitigate damage down the road.

But, it’s up to officials, experts and even property owners to demand it.

Assistant professor Jason Gordon supervised a project with Henn last summer, while both were at Mississippi State University, that surveyed municipal officials about residents’ attitudes and preparation of public trees for storms. The goal is to understand misconceptions and gaps in knowledge, and also find ways in which policies and proactive maintenance can reduce liability.

“In most places they didn’t even have a pruning plan,” said Katrina Henn, a master’s student in Warnell’s community forestry and arboriculture program who surveyed officials. Often, she added, officials didn’t consider urban forests in a holistic way, including how trees can affect other functions, such as utilities. “Tree care gets put on the back burner and it never gets taken care of.”

The result is higher cost to communities after a storm.

Now at Warnell, Gordon plans to continue the project by surveying community officials in the hurricane-prone areas of South Georgia.

Part of the issue is education, Henn said. Children are taught trees are beneficial, and officials learn about potential liability. But in between, everyone needs to understand the benefits to keeping trees trimmed and healthy.

Separate from the communities’ study, Gordon has observed a trend in coastal communities that may be leading to a reduction in the overall tree canopy. Through pressures related to the insurance industry, as well as gaps in funding available for tree planting and maintenance, homeowners may be opting to not replace trees that were lost during a storm.

More research is needed in this area, he added, but additional supports from state or federal agencies could help homeowners replant and maintain these trees, adding value to the larger community.


Seeing the full effect

Heavy equipment moves tree debrisTripp Lowe uses drone technology to map large areas of land or water, such as acres of forest or the topography under the water of a lake. But after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew in 2018, he’s now planning to add a new perspective to damage assessment.

You can stand on the side of the road or walk 20 feet into a tree stand to get an idea of the type of damage it experienced, he said. But by flying up over the forest, you can get a complete picture of the scale of damage across the entire site. It also allows you to see where the damage took place, as well as what underbrush that has grown in since the storm.

“My initial task is to fly these properties and get a good overview as far as how dense the trees are. Are there patterns? And what has grown in in the last 11 months?” he said. Drones have been used to rapidly assess damage after hurricanes and tornadoes, and Lowe said he expects them to prove just as useful in this study. He’s planning his first flights in South Georgia later this fall.

Until then, assessment of the damage has to be done on the ground, one tree stand at a time.

Dickens and Clabo have spent weeks visiting property owners, assessing damage and documenting clean-up and site preparation efforts. Some urban property owners are removing one tree at a time, while forest landowners and foresters are hiring out bulldozers, feller-bunchers, skidders and other heavy machinery to clear large areas and start over with new seedlings.

No matter the method, it’s time-consuming and costly, and also means the landowner has to completely start over.

“It can cost two- to four-fold what normal site preparation activities would be, because of the amount of debris on the site,” said Dickens. “Basically it goes back to Mexico Beach, Florida, where Michael made landfall with 155 mph sustained winds, and as it came inland a lot of stands were just devastated. Those stands have tons of debris out there, and some mechanical and chemical activities need to be done to make the site plantable. So we’re documenting these methods.”

The cost to prepare a site for planting has gone up significantly due to the volume of broken, leaning or uprooted pines in unsalvaged stands that were severely or catastrophically damaged. Plus the forest landowner may have lost $500 to $4,000 or more per acre in timber value that will not be harvested due to hurricane Michael.

Dickens recalled when hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in September 1989, producing similarly catastrophic results. At the time, about 16% of the severely to catastrophically damaged pine stands were harvested after the storm. This meant five out of every six acres were not harvested, leaving 40 to 120 tons or more of lost timber per acre—a tremendous economic loss and much greater cost per acre to prepare the land for new trees.

The cost factor is where research from Yanshu Li comes in. As the forest economics and taxation outreach specialist at Warnell, she’s been spreading the word on programs to help landowners grapple with the costs associated with a storm’s aftermath.

Along with writing UGA Extension papers on the timber tax credit program and options for landowners in federally declared disaster areas, Li and other faculty have spoken at events throughout the state to help educate affected people on the resources available.

Li said the Georgia Forestry Commission calculated that 2.37 million acres of forestland in Georgia were damaged by Hurricane Michael, with an estimated value of $762 million.

Dickens and Clabo plan to release an initial paper on their findings next year, but their project will take at least four to five years to see full results. Unlike other agricultural products, grown in a field and picked in the same year, trees take several years to reach their harvest age.

“Bottom line is, we’re regaining access to the property and making the site plantable, but it’s a slow process,” added Dickens. “This is going to be a four- to five-year window of site prep and planting these unsalvaged severely to catastrophically damaged stands.”

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