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In Hugo's wake.

In Hugo's Wake

Once it became clear that Hugo was a devastating hurricane, AFA realized that our Global ReLeaf[R] program could help coordinate an effort aimed at encouraging the reestablishment of trees. So we sent Special Projects Forester Howard Burnett on a whirlwind tour of Puerto Rico and the Carolinas to assess the damage and report his findings to the AFA Board and staff. Burnett has more than 30 years of forestry experience extending from coast to coast.

After his return, a special alert on Hugo ReLeaf appeared in the November/December 1989 issue of AMERICAN FORESTS. The followup presented here provides an in-depth look at the work to be done. - THE EDITORS

An offspring of the eastern Atlantic tropics, Hurricane Hugo started out as an unruly and bumptious youngster but quickly matured into a cousin of Attila the Hun. The storm had the personality of a wounded water buffalo.

Hugo crossed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and then slammed into the continental United States, leaving a trail of terror and destruction.

Early efforts at recovery concentrated on relieving human suffering and reconstructing the man-made assets we refer to collectively as "infrastructure" - the myriad roads, wires, and services that make our economy work. But now, from a little longer viewpoint, we can begin to comprehend what Hurricane Hugo did to the trees in its path.

In the Caribbean, my first impression was that the landscape in the aftermath of Hugo looked just like a leafless New England forest in winter.

But I wasn't in New England; the Caribbean is the tropics. And it certainly wasn't winter; the gray groves I saw were actually evergreen broadleafs - such as mangrove - but with all the leaves torn off.

From what Frank Wadsworth, one of the world's most respected tropical forest researchers, told me, a correlation seems to exist between the trees that were easily denuded of leaves and the ones that were not uprooted or broken. In other words, those that lost their leaves were the lucky ones.

September 17 and 18 were days (and nights) of terror, as Hugo ripped the Virgin Island and eastern Puerto Rico. Rural areas lost trees by the acres, and some watersheds, like the one serving the city of San Juan on Puerto Rico, were devastated.

In the Caribbean National Forest, the habitat of the endangered Puerto Rican parrot was ravaged, and the number of wild birds surviving appears to have been severely reduced. (The captive breeding program is now more than ever an important, but tenuous, factor in the survival of this beautiful species.)

The city of San Juan has a special challenge - assuring that the public water supply is safeguarded by reforesting the watershed and freeing the watercourses of down trees and limbs. The Caribbean National Forest is already at work on these tasks, but much is yet to be done, and years of growth are needed to bring the forest back to its pre-Hugo state.

There is no choice, the city must have a steady supply of pure water, so capital investments in trees must happen now.

San Juan lost many trees that need to be replaced to shade the city and to restore the beauty and tranquility that are the hallmark of this lovely old community. Streetside mahoganies, strangler figs, casuarinas, and other tropical species need to be replaced as quickly as possible.

After swiping across the northeast quadrant of Puerto Rico, Hugo re-intensified and drew a bead on the mainland of the U.S., finally coming ashore at Charleston, South Carolina, on September 21. By the time Hugo began hammering at Charleston, the winds were a thundering 135 miles per hour.

The hurricane roared across the coastal plain and on into the piedmont area and uplands of the Carolinas and Virginia before losing its punch. By the time it was over, a huge chunk of South Carolina was heavily damaged, with lighter but still severe destruction covering more of South Carolina and extending across North Carolina and into Virginia.

The damage was primarily due to wind, with torrential rains a lesser factor because of the speed with which the hurricane raced through the area. As a result, flood damage was minimal, considering the circumstances.

But the trees took a beating!

Coastal South Carolina is an extremely productive "timber-shed." Vast quantities of southern pine lumber, pulpwood, and other products come from this area. It appears that this is one of the most intense timber-producing regions ever to "host" a major hurricane.

Preliminary estimates of damage are that 6.7 billion board-feet of timber is down, along with 20 million cords of pulpwood.

To put that into perspective, the down wood is more than three times the annual timber consumption in the state of South Carolina, where timber products are the fourth leading industry.

The famous New England hurricane of 1938, which came ashore 51 years ago (to the day, by incredible coincidence), destroyed some four billion board-feet of timber - less than two-thirds of Hugo's damage. Hurricane Camille in the late '60s, the previous "standard" of forest destruction by hurricanes, is an also-ran as well, with 1.5 billion board-feet destroyed.

Some of the timber and pulpwood will be salvaged, but the challenge is so massive that only a small percentage of the available wood is likely to be saved from the insects and rots.

A herculean effort on the part of loggers, sawmillers, pulp companies, and all the supporting industries like railroads, trucking companies, state highway administrations, and chainsaw companies is expected to result in at most a fourth of the wood being salvaged.

All the dead and down trees and limbs will be ideal habitat for southern pine beetles and other destructive insects, rots, and stains. Salvage will have to be done this winter if it is to be done at all. The possibility of storing some products underwater, either in ponds or under sprays, is being looked at as a way to extend the logging period, but a relatively small amount of timber can be retained this way.

The general forest areas face another threat as well - wildfire. In this area, incendiarism is the cause of about half the forest fires, and a rash of fires is expected as winter weather dries out the fuels.

Firefighting techniques will have to change. With so much down and broken material on the ground, the traditional fire plows cannot enter many forest areas. Firefighters are faced with the possibility of making difficult choices, such as backing off to the nearest roads and backfiring large blocks of forest. Losing more acres to fire will be preferable to losing firefighter lives.

Another option is to utilize more helicopter fire-attack crews and more aerially delivered water through increased flights of helicopters with water buckets or fixed-wing tanker aircraft.

These options are likely to require moving trained crews, with equipment, east from the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast areas, at costs greatly above the past average for the Carolinas. In short, the outlook is for more expensive fire control and more acres burned for a number of years to come.

Beyond the immediate threat of fire is the need to reforest over 1,330,000 acres, according to an estimate by the South Carolina Forestry Commission. This figure covers only the tracts needing reforestation and does not take into account the areas where existing forests are severely thinned but can still be considered a forest, albeit a bedraggled one.

A reforestation effort of this magnitude will require almost a billion seedlings. It is hoped that only a few years will be required to get the job done, but work will be slowed because the down trees prevent planting by machine in many cases. Hand-planting crews will have to work in, around, over, and under the down material. Even prescribed burning, where used, will not likely remove the heavier branches and tree trunks.

The Carolina forests provided the most viable habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, another endangered species. Many of the woodpeckers' nest trees were destroyed, and many were broken off right at the nesting cavity. Thus, the birds' own activity made its habitat more sensitive to hurrican damage. In other words, they bored themselves out of house and home.

Only time will tell the total effect on the woodpecker population, but it will certainly be negative.

After salvage, fire suppression, and reforestation are done, the timber-production areas will recover over time. A longer period will be required for the recovery of the shade and yard trees in the cities, towns, and villages.

Over a wide area, much of the damage to homes was caused by trees crashing through roofs, flattening autos, or blocking roads. Until now, the challenge has been to get rid of the offending tree trunks, limbs, and foliage. Thought must now be turned to recovering shade to help keep air-conditioning bills in check in the years ahead - not to mention restoring the great beauty and sense of serenity the trees formerly provided.

A massive urban and community tree-planting effort is called for.

Experience has shown live oaks to be one of the better species in terms of wind resistance, but a variety of trees is needed to recover the beauty inherent in a mix. Municipalities, private citizens' groups, homeowners acting individually, and other landowners (such as cemetery associations) all have a lot of work to do.

Visitors to the Hugo area garner a kaleidoscope of images, as shown in the illustrations accompanying this article. To me, one of the most poignant is the sight of well-tended cemeteries with piles of tree trunks and limbs among the tombstones - and even some uprooted stones.

Another is the loss of the small pecan orchards around some of the old farmhouses. Those pecan trees were planted by "grandpa" so the kids could have the benefits, but now grandpa's labors are for naught.

Cities like San Juan, Charleston, and Charlotte actually have a golden opportunity to begin a "designer" urban forest. With so much damage, it's like starting with a clean plate.

A planning effort done now will provide the opportunity to think through choices among species and cultivar selection, planting sites, maintenance ordinances, and all the technical aspects of a desirable urban tree program.

The urban forests in these cities can be better than ever.

Hugo dealt a heavy blow, but national, state, city, village, private, and individual efforts - often of heroic proportions - have gotten the devastated areas through the first few months of recovery. Now the same spirit of willingness to tackle and overcome the common enemy will turn long-term attention to recovery or replacement of the trees splintered by the hurricane.

This area has been hit by hurricanes before, and no doubt it will be targeted again. But an improved forest will help blunt the force of future storms. With the help of all of us, the trees will return - better than ever.

PHOTO : Hugo ripped fronds from palms and uprooted strangler figs like this one next to local Global ReLeaf[R] coordinator Ana Vergara.

PHOTO : Some trees became nesting sites for wayward boats.

PHOTO : Trees like this one in Charlotte absorbed the brunt of the storm's energy before finally succumbing.

PHOTO : Sheared-off trees helped to save houses like this one in Bull Bay, South Carolina.

PHOTO : Homeowners were faced with a monumental cleanup task.

PHOTO : Hugo exhibited an odd sense of irony.

PHOTO : Red-cockaded woodpeckers' homes snapped off at the nest holes.
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Title Annotation:includes related information; look at the reforestation project
Author:Burnett, Howard
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:1908
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