According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Atlantic hurricane activity has risen sharply since the 1970s. Observable increases in hurricane activity over the past decade along the coastlines of the southern continental U.S. and Puerto Rico have created the need for standing protocols for short, mid, and long range response and resource availability for the states most frequently impacted by these seasonal tropical storms.
With many forest and agricultural landowners experiencing heavy losses after such natural disasters, individual and community recovery across southern states relies heavily on state programming and educating private forest owners on the resources available to them. With the often overwhelming list of things to do to be prepared and the frequently confusing bureaucratic channels to try to navigate, becoming educated on this subject can seem daunting. The following is an attempt to demystify and clarify the process of recovery and provide awareness on various opportunities available to forest owners.
Preparing for the Storm
As a private forest owner, preparation is invaluable in positioning for a smoother recovery post disaster. Waiting until a storm hits is often too late. Establishing and maintaining strong partnerships with neighboring local, state, and federal land managers is one way to achieve this. Some additional best practices to keep in mind when preparing include:
- Collect and keep good documentation on forest management and planting records, complete with photos. Having a binder that tells the story of a timber stand can be indispensable when assessing the effects of a hurricane
- Due diligence in managing forestland and keeping it as healthy as possible will help avoid greater stand loss
- Build a relationship with local county foresters
- Make contact and be familiar with local USDA Farm Service Agency Office
Once a hurricane is predicted to make landfall in a certain area, though, a different sort of preparation is initiated. For example, the men and women of state forestry agencies like the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) are staged to assist once the winds die down. Chainsaw crews are identified and equipment is ready to go, even before the storm. State forestry employees provide planning and logistical support through incident management teams as part of the emergency responder activation and are involved at offices across the state.
When the Winds Die Down
As so many Southern communities are aware of, there is a lot of clean up to deal with in the days and weeks after a hurricane. With Hurricane Laura (August 2020), many parts of Louisiana were without power for at least a week, with outages lasting in some areas even longer, but in order to be able to get the power grid back up and running, debris must be cleared.
In the direct aftermath of a natural disaster like a hurricane or wildfire, trained groups are called upon to help clear downed or damaged trees in their communities. For instance, the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS), maintained by Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS), had at least six saw teams assisting with Hurricane Laura response efforts. These images show one saw team clearing multiple roads in a rural community in Sabine County, which suffered extreme tree destruction in multiple locations.
Similarly, for Hurricane Sally (September 2020) response, by the morning of September 17 AFC saw teams with heavy equipment from across Alabama answered the call in Baldwin County to clear roadways for first responders and law enforcement. A total of two six-man saw teams, one five-man team, and one three-man team responded. These AFC crews not only navigated the hazards of storm debris and road closures from flood waters and downed power lines, but also the continuing threat of Covid-19. The agency was also called upon to move and deliver resources to areas impacted by the storm. All requests came from and were coordinated by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
In another example of the wide range of recovery frameworks, Florida and Alabama state forestry agencies worked collaboratively to survey damaged areas from Hurricane Sally to complete a consistent assessment and reporting protocol across the two states. Florida Forest Service completed an aerial survey of damaged trees from strong winds and severe flooding from saltwater intrusion in the coastal counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa on Friday, September 18, and AFC conducted its aerial survey on Monday, September 21 in Mobile and Baldwin counties using DMSM (Digital Mobile Sketch Mapping) technology. This type of work is at the heart of the mission behind the South's Urban Forest Strike Teams (UFSTs). Urban Forest Strike Teams come to the aid of a region whose urban forest has been impacted by a natural disaster. Strike teams provide tree damage and risk assessments and Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance information to communities. If you are interested in learning more about the history of UFSTs, you can read about them at https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/compass/2015/10/22/how-the-urban-forest-strike-teams-began/.
Mid Range Recovery Assistance
Once the most pressing safety concerns have been addressed with debris removal from roads and houses and ensuring flood waters have receded, then communities, businesses, and private landowners involved in forest markets will typically start asking for assistance in getting their salvaged products, like down trees, to market to recoup some of the monetary loss they’ve experienced. State offices that can assist with questions like these will be listed at the end of this writing.
Thinking beyond the salvage, the Georgia Forestry Commission has some great examples of mid-term disaster recovery assistance on their website at https://gatrees.org/forest-management-conservation/natural-disaster-recovery/. Much of this aid focuses around tax relief packages pushed through by state legislatures but relief can also take the form of grants for which impacted landowners can apply.
Long Range Planning for Forest Health
For areas of land where the devastation is too great or there are other issues that cause recovery to be pushed out, the consequences of not doing anything can oftentimes create a situation for an even more devastating natural event to occur. For instance, were landowners or government agencies to leave large amounts of dead and downed vegetation uncleared they would face increased potential for catastrophic wildfires due the increased amount of fuel available to burn.
Much of the long-term recovery assistance comes in the form of state and federal grant funding. For instance, in continuing to provide resources two years after Hurricane Michael (2018), the Georgia Department of Agriculture accepted applications for $347 million in block grant funds between March and April of this year. Georgia farmers and forest landowners in 95 eligible counties, who suffered losses to beef, dairy, fruit and vegetable, pecan, poultry, timber, and uninsured infrastructure were eligible to enroll. This was part of a broader $3 billion disaster relief package that included $800 million earmarked for agricultural producers impacted by Hurricanes Michael and Florence in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The federal block grants seek to help recover losses not covered under existing USDA Farm Service Agency programs.
Additional Information on Recovery Resources
Important steps that forest owners can take to either prepare for or set yourself on the road to recovery from a natural disaster is to reach out to your state emergency management agency as well as your state forestry agency for information on the various types of resources that may be available to you. While the type of information may vary from state to state, FEMA disaster maps and maps of counties in a declared state of emergency can help landowners identify whether they may qualify for broader assistance. These sites often have assistance request forms for things like debris removal, like the one posted to the TFS Hurricane Laura resources page:
o Texas Hurricane Laura resources: https://tfsweb.tamu.edu/laura/
Most states have built out valuable digital hubs that address the unique resources available from state to state, some additional examples include:
o Alabama resources: https://forestry.alabama.gov/Pages/Informational/News.aspx?Article=A0003
o Georgia resources: https://gatrees.org/forest-management-conservation/natural-disaster-recovery/
o Louisiana Hurricane Laura resources: https://www.ldaf.state.la.us/hurricane-laura-resources/
o North Carolina resources: https://www.nc.gov/agencies/volunteer/disaster-assistance
Are you aware of other public resources available for landowners and land managers when it comes to recovering from natural disasters that we haven’t listed here? Please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with feedback or comments.