Private industry, professional groups, and government agencies work together to assist communities after Hurricane Katrina

Eric Kuehler, Technology Transfer Specialist, and Dudley R. Hartel, Center Coordinator, Southern Center for Urban Forest Research and Information, USDA Forest Service, Athens, Georgia

Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, professional arborists attending the Society of Municipal Arborists' annual conference in Windsor, Ontario, were eager to volunteer their skills and services to help communities that were devastated by this natural disaster. Other professional tree organizations, tree care companies, and governmental entities also wanted to help. Instead of going it alone with individual projects, the Davey Resource Group, Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA), International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region and Southern Research Station, and state forestry agencies from Mississippi and Louisiana participated in a project that was able to provide essential professional assistance to coastal communities.

Each group brought its expertise to this partnership. The SMA contacted its professional members and maintained a volunteers' database of those willing to assist with the project. The ISA provided funding for the volunteers' travel to and from the region and also encouraged their members to volunteer. The Davey Resource Group provided technical assistance with GPS units, database management, and online mapping. The U.S. Forest Service coordinated the efforts, provided assessment training, funded volunteer daily expenses, managed the data, and provided final maps and reports to the communities. The state forestry agencies coordinated local efforts, provided orientation to volunteers, and arranged for housing and office space for the project.

The object of the Gulf Coast Tree Assessment project was to assist local communities affected by Hurricane Katrina with a risk evaluation of trees remaining after the storm. Often after large natural disasters, damaged trees are assessed by individuals other than trained, certified and experienced arborists which results in the removal of many trees that could have otherwise been salvaged. These surviving trees can provide the foundation for a community's efforts to rebuild their urban forest. Trees on and along the public rights-of-way were assessed for damage (e.g., root collar damage, large damaged limbs) that could increase risk. The assessment resulted in a database of trees recommended for removal or pruning to reduce this risk.

Between January and May 2006, trees in 10 communities affected by Hurricane Katrina were assessed as a result of this partnership effort. These communities did not have the necessary capacity to conduct assessments on their own because of budget constraints or because many employees were not able to return after the storm. The data that was collected gave communities valuable information to help them develop an interim management plan for tree removal and pruning. It also gave necessary information to present to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) when asking for financial assistance to reduce hazards or remove debris.

In each community, minor modifications were made to the assessment protocol to address various levels of tree hazard mitigation, funding and personnel constraints, and level of communication with FEMA and/or state agencies.

Although the hazard reduction process has been slow, many communities were able to get financial assistance through FEMA for tree removal because of the data collected by the professional arborists. In several cities, FEMA contracting was completed before we were able to complete our tree assessment, but the information collected was still useful for local community action. In Hancock County, Mississippi where the eye of the hurricane hit, FEMA initially would not meet with local officials because they did not have adequate data from professionals. After volunteer professionals provided their data, county officials, state representatives, and the Mississippi governor were able to convince FEMA that financial assistance was needed and appropriate to reduce tree hazards. That work is currently in progress.

This assessment project was instrumental in learning and documenting how cleanup efforts are handled by FEMA and their impacts on the urban forest. Efforts are underway to establish a stronger partnership with FEMA and develop an urban tree assessment protocol using tree care professionals. The assessment model created by this partnership has implications for future natural disasters since the assessment model is in place and has been tested. Although the parameters of the assessment may change depending on the event, the mechanism of mobilizing trained professional volunteers to help evaluate and maintain a community's urban forest is established and operational.

For the past two years, the Urban and Community Forestry coordinators from the 13 southern states have been developing a response plan and protocols for such events as Hurricane Katrina. Work they are currently funding to better predict post-storm urban forestry debris volumes will become the first of a three-part strategy that includes debris location and volume estimates, public risk assessment for remaining trees, and reestablishment of the urban forest.

For more information regarding this project, please call (706) 559-4268 or (706) 559-4236.

The 10 communities that were helped by tree care professional volunteers through the Gulf Coast Tree Assessment Project and their primary contact personnel:

Biloxi and Ocean Springs, MS: Eric Nolan, Urban Forester, enolan@biloxi.ms.us, (228) 435-6280

Kenner, LA: Hailey Bowen, Landscape Architect, hbowen@kenner.la.us, (504) 468-7280

City Park, Lake Vista, Jefferson Parish, Camp Salmen, Covington, and Mandeville, LA: Tom Campbell, Urban Forestry Program Director, tom_c@ldaf.state.la.us; Mahlon Doucet, LA Urban Forestry Coordinator, mdoucet@ldaf.state.la.us

Hancock County, MS: Gwen Smith, MS state extension officer, gsmith@ext.msstate.edu, (228) 467-5456