Trees for Wildlife Program Helps Recovery After Hurricane Michael

Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018, as a category 5 storm. “I lost numerous large oak trees,” Lynn Artz, a resident of Wakulla County, Florida, recalled. “One [struck] an American beech that I had planted as a baby and had reached substantial size. Another took down a power line after breaking the pole and leaving the downed line across my driveway.”

“I was without power for weeks,” she added, “which meant no well pump and no water, as well as no electricity. I had to vacate my home for several weeks until they could finally replace the utility pole.”

More than a year after this disaster, some communities in Florida, such as Bay and Calhoun Counties, have not been cleaned up yet, and residents still have blue tarps as roofs. 

“I drove to Port St. Joe the other day … there’s still constant debris cleanup,” said Liz Sparks, Regional Wildflower Alliance Liaison for the Florida Wildflower Foundation. “Some of the forests are still lying sideways. Some of the interstate signs are still twisted or missing. … Plenty of people are still kind of waiting in line to have a roof and have repairs made.”

Hurricane Michael was the first category 5 hurricane to strike the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and was the strongest hurricane on record in the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Michael’s monstrous winds and storm surge caused 16 deaths, seven of which were in Florida, and approximately $25 billion of damage in the United States. The hurricane was also indirectly responsible for 43 deaths in Florida that were caused by storm-related incidents such as falls during the post-storm cleanup and traffic accidents. 

This disaster not only devastated many human communities, but it also damaged numerous natural ecosystems in Florida—endangering wildlife across the state, such as  the red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as the state’s economy.

“It’s really desperate,” Sparks said. “The timber industry is shot, and a lot of trees are dying. Jobs are gone; houses are gone.”

Michael damaged nearly three million acres of pine and hardwood in Florida valued at $1.3 billion, according to the state’s agriculture department. The effects of this habitat damage were evident.

Before Michael, an area of the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida had 20 trees with red-cockaded woodpecker cavities, Wildlife Technician Brenton Holt told WFSU News. After the storm, however, only two of those trees were left intact, and the birds living in the trees that were knocked down likely did not survive.

A red-cockaded woodpecker.

Rebuilding these natural habitats, as well as the human communities, has been an ongoing effort in Florida. As recovery is expensive—and some residents have yet to rebuild their own homes—projects like the National Wildlife Federation’s Trees for Wildlife program have helped provide communities with free resources to simultaneously rebuild the natural environment.  

Trees for Wildlife is an educational program that provides adult leaders with fun, hands-on science-based activities to help young people learn about the importance of trees and how to plant and take care of trees for the future. The Trees for Wildlife program also helps sponsor the annual Crawfordville Arbor Day Celebration and Tree Giveaway in Wakulla County, Florida. 

Residents like Julie McConnell emphasized the importance of planting trees to help rebuild Florida’s communities after Hurricane Michael.

McConnell is a horticulture agent for Bay County, Florida, and works in Panama City as University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Faculty.  McConnell helps educate people in her community about landscape and insect issues, including recovering from disasters. Below, McConnell discusses the impact that Hurricane Michael had in Bay County and the role that tree planting and giveaways have played in the community’s recovery. 

While McConnell highlighted the impact that tree giveaways have in helping communities recover, Artz noted the significance that the annual Crawfordville Arbor Day Celebration and Tree Giveaway has played in helping her yard become a home for wildlife.

“Over the years, I have planted numerous trees that I’ve obtained at the annual Crawfordville Arbor Day Tree Giveaway,” Artz, who is the Crawfordville Arbor Day Coordinator, said. She has planted a southern live oak, a rusty blackhaw, two parsley hawthorns, two Ashe’s magnolia, a Walter’s viburnum, an American basswood, and numerous longleaf pines in her yard—all of which she received from the annual Tree Giveaway.

“Thanks to Crawfordville Arbor Day and my other efforts, I’ve been able to diversify the native trees in my yard and better support our native birds, butterflies, and other pollinators,” she said.

The Trees for Wildlife program and the Florida Wildlife Federation sponsored the  Crawfordville Arbor Day Celebration and Tree Giveaway this year on Saturday, January 18 at Hudson Park in downtown Crawfordville.

A young boy at the Crawfordville Arbor Day Celebration and Tree Giveaway carrying a bald cypress tree.  Credit: Claudia Farren.

One free native tree was given to everyone who attended the event. Native tree species that were offered at the giveaway included eastern redbud, wild olive, flatwoods plum, southern arrowwood, parsley hawthorn, pignut hickory, sweetbay magnolia, southern red oak, dahoon holly, and longleaf pine.

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