Hurricane Michael Recovery Focus of State Line Meeting

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John and Elizabeth Alter manage more than 1,000 acres of forestland in Malone, Florida, including 18 Tree Farm stands. They experienced significant losses from Hurricane Michael, like many landowners in the panhandle region. Photo courtesy of John Alter.

In May, state foresters from Florida and Georgia, along with their staffs, personnel from the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, the Apalachicola National Forest, and Tall Timbers gathered at the Wakulla Environmental Institute in Crawfordville, Florida for a State Line meeting.

Participants discussed Hurricane Michael impacts, recovery, and challenges that the agencies are facing — and ways that SRS may be able to address those needs through current research activities, science syntheses, and other collaborative efforts.

The meeting began with introductions from the 24 participants and a brief overview of how the State Line meetings originated from Rob Doudrick, SRS director.

“There is always a benefit in bringing everyone together to hear first-hand about their needs, and how we can help tailor our research to meet those needs or generate information to help with decision making ,” says Doudrick.

“The hurricane issue is huge, but it’s bigger than that,” says Jim Karels, state forester and director of the Florida Forest Service. “We are looking for information on markets, fire, and technology transfer. It’s about communication, and getting together in person is a way to connect all these issues.” Chuck Williams, state forester and director of the Georgia Forestry Commission agreed.

USDA Forest Service scientists and subject matter experts from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee attended the meeting to discuss their relevant research and to present a brief state-of-the-knowledge on the following topics:

  • FIA Analysis of Hurricane Impacts and Risk Analysis Proposal: Mark Brown, Forester and Robert Lee, Deputy Program Manager
  • Economic Impacts: Karen Abt, Research Economist and Bob Abt, Co-Director, Southern Forest Resource Assessment Consortium (SOFAC)
  • Impacts to Forest Operations: Mathew Smidt, General Engineer
  • Fire Risk: Scott Goodrick, Research Meteorologist
  • Florida A&M University Partnership Opportunities: Johnny Grace, General Engineer

Lee presented a draft incident action plan similar to one used during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This lead to a discussion around developing a short-term disaster response plan to assess damage to forest resources immediately after a disaster and a long-term disaster recovery plan to conduct risk assessments and address economic loss during the weeks and months following a natural disaster.

Before moving to other topics, it was recommended that a risk assessment team be formed to draft both short- and long-term recovery plans for future disturbances. The team could possibly include one member from each Southern Group of State Foresters (SGSF) committee and members from SRS and the Southern Region (R8).

At a minimum, the plans should:

  • Include a standardized process for disturbance engagement
  • Propose damage estimates
  • Create a coordinated communication plan
  • Assess fuel loads and establish protocols for non-salvaged wood
  • Address economic loss
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More than 7,000 family forest landowners in southwest Georgia were impacted by Hurricane Michael in October, 2018. Photo courtesy of Georgia Forestry Association.

“This discussion was continued at the recent 2019 SGSF annual meeting, and a preliminary team was formed,” says Stephanie Laseter, SRS-R8 Forest Service liaison and meeting organizer.

As a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Michael left many landowners across Florida and Georgia devastated and had a tremendous financial impact on the region’s timber industry. More than three million acres were severely damaged in Florida with an estimated timber value over $1 billion. In Georgia, more than two million acres of forestland were impacted, with an estimated timber value of more than $762 million.

With both states reporting severe damage to forestland, and limited options available to landowners, the needs of landowners were at the forefront of the meeting. Immediate needs from the Forest Service include transferring technical assistance information and providing guidelines for post-storm management. The group also discussed the need for an updated guidebook for post-storm recovery, similar to STODAFOR (Storm Damaged Forests), a technical guide on harvesting and conservation of storm damaged timber.

“For a one-day meeting, we covered a lot of information and walked away with a list of action items and a better understanding of what the landowners and the state agencies needed from research,” says Doudrick.

Learn more about the Florida-Georgia State Line Meeting.

For more information, email Stephanie Laseter at stephanie.laseter@usda.gov.

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