Urban Forest Strike Teams Support Storm Recovery

First responders for damaged trees

Thousands of federal, state, and private agencies have been deployed to areas that were impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. These first responders are there to help the people in the storm’s path.

However, there is another group of responders that go into storm-ravaged towns to aid the trees: the Urban Forest Strike Teams (UFST).

This 10-year-old program is a nationwide collaborative effort among state forestry agencies funded and trained through the USFS Urban and Community Forestry Program. Since 2007, the Southern UFST has been activated 12 times and mobilized across the South in response to hurricanes, tornadoes, and ice storms.

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Urban Forest Strike Team Members assess and record tree damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Southern Group State Forests.

The catalyst for the creation of UFST was Hurricane Katrina. Widespread tree damage prompted the international Society of Arboriculture, Davey Resource Group, and USFS to deploy certified arborists into at least nine communities along the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Urban foresters in state forestry agencies were frustrated that damaged but viable trees were being cut down and trees that posed a high risk to the public remained standing. The lack of an assessment strategy or trained staff hindered their ability to offer needed assistance to impacted communities.

Urban Forestry Coordinators of Virginia and North Carolina – Paul Revell and Leslie Moorman – reached out to the Southern Research Station (SRS) for assistance. In 2007 Dudley Hartel, Urban Forestry South center manager, and Eric Kuehler, technology transfer specialist, developed the first UFST training program in collaboration with state forestry agencies.

A UFST is comprised of highly-trained specialists, including Certified Arborists® and foresters, who conduct damage assessments and determine whether the storm-damaged trees pose risks to the community.

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A member of the Urban Forest Strike Team surveys damage from Hurricane Harvey in Gulfport, Texas. The team was on the ground within a week of the storm making landfall. Photo courtesy of the Southern Group of State Foresters.

The UFST walks the city streets, parks, and other public property; evaluates damaged trees; and enters GIS data to support mitigation and recovery. These real-time data provide the city with information on which trees were impacted, where they are located, the extent of the damage, and whether the damaged trees pose a risk.

UFSTs also provide communities with the information necessary to apply for FEMA public assistance and debris removal, as well as connecting communities with potential partners to help replant a community’s forest.

“The UFST goes into areas first hit hard by wind damage,” said Hartel. “We will have to wait until next spring before we send a team to Houston to assess tree damage due to flooding. All that water will have a significant impact to tree health in the long-term.”

“Trees are a critical part of a community’s infrastructure and should be considered in restoration planning,” said Linda Moon, Texas A&M Forest Service communications manager and communications liaison to the Southern Group of State Foresters. “Making our urban forests more resilient will in turn make our cherished communities more resilient.”

For more information, email Patty Matteson at phmatteson@fs.fed.us.

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