Miss. lost 2 million trees, didn’t survive Hurricane Katrina

Published 12:18 am Sunday, February 25, 2007

The tree Curtis Harrison grew up in is still growing up.

The live oak, a 50-plus-year-old giant with rough, brown skin and long sturdy limbs, held him up when he was a boy and now lifts him as a man.

“This gorgeous live oak made it through Hurricane Katrina,” said Harrison, 54, of Biloxi, “and I love to look at it. The live oak is our heritage. It’s like a calling card on the Coast. I loved to climb it when I was little bitty kid. A live oak’s easy to climb.”

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They’re not so easy to knock down, though.

The proof: Like the tree in Harrison’s yard, scores of others are spreading their puffy fingers over Biloxi’s beach-front property, survivors of the August 2005 storm that lopped off at least $439 million worth of urban trees in 11 Gulf Coast communities.

Live oaks have fared better than most other species.

For many residents, the oaks’ canopies of wide, splayed branches resemble nothing less than a show of good, strong hands, something just about everyone can use down here.

“The live oaks are so close to everyone’s heart,” said Eric Nolan, the City of Biloxi’s arborist. “A nice, majestic shade tree a lot of people have in their yards, and you couldn’t pay them to take it down.

“It survived the storm.”

In Mississippi’s towns and cities alone — never mind the 1.2 million acres of damaged forestland — some 2 million trees didn’t survive.

Biloxi has taken down 2,000 dead or damaged trees, and that doesn’t count those the wind and water knocked down, Nolan said. So far, the tree work here has cost around $3 million.

As for the live oaks, which symbolize the coast as much or more than fried shrimp and tanned tourists, many survived, thanks to tree lovers.

A month or two after Katrina, a coalition of garden clubs, civic groups and others organized a project paid for mostly by Home Depot — a recovery effort that included replacing lost soil, mulching and flushing out storm-borne salt that sprinkled the oaks like Fritos.

About 550 live oaks were deemed savable. All are still alive, said Jimmy Mordica, director of conservation education and public outreach for the Mississippi Forestry Commission, the state agency that has given out $900,000 in grants to communities for tree replacement/remediation.

“We all pulled together and made it happen,” Mordica said.

For the live oaks, as leathery and tough as a shrimp-boat captain, nature made it happen, too.

For other species, nature wasn’t as farsighted.

“Magnolias and sweet gums and pecans aren’t doing so well,” Nolan said.

“The water from the storm softened everything up. And when it pulled out, it scoured the soil.”

Insects and scarring from water-tossed debris also took a toll on trees.

Many got sicker during the dry summer months a year after Katrina, when damaged fine-root systems were like pinched drinking straws trying to suck up the vanishing water.

Some trees suffered less than others, including bald cypress, maple, and American sycamore, Nolan said.

Live oaks, like coin slots and sun block, they were made for the Coast. “They like that morning spray and dew, the heat,” Nolan said. “But they don’t do as well in, say, Jackson, where red oaks, turkey oaks and others species are more likely to thrive.”

Live oaks are, to a degree, hurricane-resistant, said Donna Yowell, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Urban Forest Council.

“Many withstood the wind and water of Katrina, partly because of their dense wood, partly because of the way they’re shaped. They have a canopy of leaves that gives them balance.

“And their roots go down deep to stabilize them.”

Their stable influence may have saved homes. “A lot of people on the Coast believe the live oaks served as buffers from storm debris,” Yowell said.

“Where you find rows of live oaks or densely planted trees, many of the structures near them survived.”

Still, she said, “the Coast has lost so much of its ecotourism, its esthetics.”

As coast cities rebuild, their leaders try to balance concerns for the economy with concerns for those shade-tree esthetics.

In Biloxi, the Development Review Commission meets to decide which trees will be spared as more development kicks in. This sorting of trees by value is what some coast residents call “tree-age” — a play on the medical term.

Biloxi is one of many cities trying to bring back the best of the trees.

“There are 12 certified arborists on the Coast putting their heads together to work on this,” said David Minkler, Ocean Springs’ arborist.

To encourage home owners, business owners, city officials and others to bring back the sturdiest species, Yowell’s agency has offered free training under the Master Urban Forestry program.

“Slow-growing trees withstand storms better,” Yowell said. “Fast-growing trees are, generally speaking, weaker, but the temptation is to plant those. People have lost their shade trees and they see their electric bills skyrocket. They want that shade back.”

While many of the brawny, slow-growing live oaks thumb their noses at storms, they still need help.

Standing in the shade of a living live oak at Biloxi’s Small Craft Harbor, Nolan points to the crown.

“It was June or July of 2005,” he said, “when I thinned it out with a chainsaw. That meant that a month or two later, when Katrina hit, the wind was able to whip through the branches without taking it down. It meant less debris would catch in it.”

It meant that when the winds of Katrina blew through the spreading fingers of the tall, trim oak, Nolan had already saved its life — with a manicure.