When living in the South, there are a few things you can always count on: sweet tea, good barbecue and football. You can also count on being at the mercy of the weather. Here, you can experience scorching heat, bitter cold and torrential rain all in the same day. And you often do. Southerners have learned to prepare for turbulent weather changes in our everyday lives. We have also learned that it is not “if” a natural disaster will strike – but “when.”
The Atlantic Hurricane Season starts June 1 and runs through November 30 and this year the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center projects a 60% chance for an “above-normal” hurricane season and 13-20 named storms expected. This news may be disheartening to some of our southern communities who experienced the historic 2020 hurricane season, which sent the National Hurricane Center to its backup list of storm names for only the second time in history. At one point, the center’s forecasters tracked five storms at once and named three new storms in a single day.
In addition to the damage of homes and businesses, the damage hurricanes inflict on our southern urban tree canopies can create additional, less obvious, risks to public safety. In 2020, Hurricane Laura in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and Hurricane Sally in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, especially wreaked havoc on urban forests with high winds and storm surge flooding. In Florida, our panhandle communities are still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael from 2018, which destroyed 2.8 million acres of trees. Much remains on the ground today, ready to burn and posing a wildfire risk to communities.
Responding to the need to strengthen our urban tree canopies and provide support in the wake of a storm, the Southern Group of State Foresters and its member agencies have lead the way in developing specialized Urban Forest Strike Teams to aid disaster-impacted communities and their urban forests. Immediately following extreme weather events, Urban Forest Strike Teams deploy to help communities assess and document tree-damage, mitigate risks and provide information that communities can use to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public assistance.
Urban Forest Strike Teams are made up of urban foresters and arborists from state forestry agencies, who work with local emergency management, communities and the USDA Forest Service, to mobilize when requested or needed by affected communities. But communities don’t have to wait until after a disaster event occurs to find out how Urban Forest Strike Teams work, or how and when to contact them. State forestry agencies have numerous resources available to assist communities in creating preparedness plans for unexpected damage to their urban forests.
Here are five things communities can do right now for their urban forests to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season:
- Conduct tree inventories and risk assessments in public spaces and along major roads, following up with recommended maintenance.
- Include plans for the urban forest in your community’s Emergency Management Plan.
- In the event of a natural disaster, make a plan now to survey tree damage BEFORE debris removal begins.
- Become familiar with the requirements of FEMA’s public assistance grants for debris removal.
- Don’t do it alone. The Urban Forest Strike Team program can bolster the capacity of your municipality during response and recovery of a natural disaster. Find out how to request assistance.
We can’t control natural disasters. But we can prepare our communities and urban forests for when they strike. To learn more about Urban Forest Strike Teams or to request assistance with your community's urban forest, contact your local state forestry office.