Community forests can suffer greatly after natural disasters, and tree canopies in cities and towns impacted by Hurricane Harvey are no exception. But when disasters strike, state forestry agencies throughout the South can call upon a special group of experts to assess the damage to the community’s public trees—Urban Forest Strike Teams. Texas A&M Forest Service recently mobilized an Urban Forest Strike Team to do just that in the storm-battered town of Rockport, Texas.
Rockport is a small, coastal town, long identified with its signature wind-swept oaks trees. Hurricane Harvey passed directly over the town, with 130-knot winds and multiple tornadoes completely destroying 35 percent of the city. Destruction included many of the community’s beloved and ecologically important trees.
As the community found itself dealing with property damage, utility outages and continuity of government issues, they needed outside expertise to assess the storm-damaged trees. Rockport turned to Texas A&M Forest Service and the Urban Forest Strike Team for help.
An Urban Forest Strike Team is a group of highly-trained specialists. They are Certified Arborists® and foresters who conduct damage assessments and determine whether the storm-damaged trees posed risks to the community.
In Rockport, the strike team of nine on-site responders walked the city streets and entered real-time information into a GIS mapping program, which instantaneously compiled and analyzed incoming information on which trees were impacted, where they were located, how extensive the damage was and whether the damaged trees posed a risk to the community.
Initial findings in Rockport showed that Live oaks were particularly hard hit with damage most commonly occurring in the crowns of the trees and being fully or partially blown over.
Urban Forest Strike Teams can also provide communities with the information necessary to apply for FEMA public assistance and debris removal after a disaster, as well as connecting communities with potential partners to help replant a community’s forest.
The Urban Forest Strike Team program has been in effect for 10 years. It is a nationwide collaborative effort among state forestry agencies funded and trained through the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program.
Since 2007, the Southern Urban Forest Strike Teams have been activated 10 times and have mobilized hundreds of team members across the South in response to disasters such as Hurricanes Gustav, Ike, Irene and Matthew, tornadoes in Georgia and Missouri and ice storms in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kentucky.
Today, strike teams have once again been activated and are responding not only to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, but are soon to deploy to the Florida coast where Hurricane Irma hit Sept. 10, 2017.
No urban forest is immune to disaster, no matter how large or small the community. In Texas, pending state approval, the Urban Forest Strike Team will survey the communities of Victoria, Fulton, Refugio and Houston next and assess the long-term implications of flooding on community forests in the urban areas of Southeast Texas.
Recovering the urban forests after Hurricane Harvey will take years if not decades.
However, restoring the trees following a natural disaster is more than beautification of the city. Trees are a critical part of a community’s infrastructure and should be considered in restoration planning. Making our urban forests more resilient will in turn make our cherished southern communities more resilient and better prepare us for the next natural disaster.