How the GFC is Serving Georgians in the Wake of Hurricane Michael
By: Stasia Kelly April 29, 2019
On the afternoon of October 10, 2018, people in southwest Georgia were hunkering down. Category 3 Hurricane Michael, the strongest hurricane ever to come up through the Florida Panhandle barreled in, pummeling homes, forests, orchards, and towns, and leaving behind a monumental tangle of wreckage.
Hurricane Michael’s devastation resulted in $763 million in timber resource losses on more than two million acres of forestland. Sound planning, training and strong relationships guided us through this storm. Lessons learned can help us all be better prepared for the next.
GFC chainsaw crews began clearing roads immediately after the storm.
The Calm Before the Storm
Planning ahead for all types of environmental emergencies is a long-established practice for the Georgia Forestry Commission. Emergency systems for intrastate agencies and their federal and local partners are always in place, and during hurricane season it's safe to say that GFC Chief of Protection Frank Sorrells keeps a close eye on the weather report. Working at the direction of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), Sorrells coordinates GFC personnel and equipment capable of responding immediately to the fallout from hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather events. In turn, he's the point man for the GFC organization, and relays alerts and orders to chief rangers in counties that might be affected.
The day before the storm hit, Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 108 counties. GFC began delivering logistical supplies and providing forklifts and operators to load and unload supplies - a service that continued weeks into recovery.
Georgia Forestry Commission Decatur County Chief Ranger Rodney Heard and Decatur County Emergency Management Agency Director Charlie McCann were in close contact the morning Michael was poised for landfall. Heard had the foresight to have three GFC rangers position bulldozers on public roads near their homes for fast access. They would need them. After winds up to 125 miles per hour did their business, some crew members had to use chain saws just to get out of their own driveways.
"It took us two and a half hours to go four miles," Heard said of the grueling work to clear area roads after the storm passed. "It's a miracle no one was hurt."
Georgia Forestry Commission Miller/Early County Chief Ranger Hayden Holt said he is "still in shock" about the ferocity of the storm. He, too, had been having hourly prep meetings with his counties' EMA staff.
"If we didn't have this relationship established, we'd be in bad trouble," Holt said. "We're just like a pencil and eraser; we're tight."
As soon as it was safe, 10 GFC chainsaw crews from all over the state fanned out across the impacted counties. In addition, 90 personnel worked to clear critical infrastructure under the guidance of GEMA. A specially trained Type 3 Incident Management Team led by GFC moved in to facilitate cleanup, and a federal disaster declaration was issued. GFC foresters conducted damage assessments on the ground and in the air, estimating the amount of timber damage and its value – critical figures upon which future aid decisions would be made. GFC crews and equipment emptied semis packed with supplies, delivered cots and hundreds of pallets of water. As far as the eye could see, splintered trees were horizontal or leaning at grotesque angles. Sheds and homes and cars were smashed. Even a train took a hit from two huge fallen pines. Power lines were down. Everywhere, there was debris - and danger.
"I couldn't have more confidence in anyone than I do our people," said GFC Area 9 Fire Management Officer Darren Martin. “GFC personnel are very well trained and it was all hands on deck."
"We never had anything like this," said Heard. "There was no electricity, no lights, no showers, and we slept at the GFC office. The local churches were kind enough to keep us fed. And we haven't gotten back to normal yet."
GFC's Steve Martin and landowner Patricia Middleton survey damage on her Early County property.
At GFC offices across the state, phones rang where they were working, and cell phones vibrated non-stop. Landowners needed help, fast. Many of them were established customers, friends and neighbors, and prioritizing became a challenge. Throughout, the GFC message was consistent: Assess. Salvage. Restore.
At landowner meetings in the hard-hit districts, Georgia Forestry Commission Director Chuck Williams listened - and helped people understand.
"Damage can be highly variable according to tree species, age, density and thinning history,” he said. "Your objectives for your property will help determine strategies."
Georgia Forestry Commission Forest Management Chief Scott Griffin was by Williams' side.
"Assessments take these factors into consideration, and they'll drive decisions about salvage and restoration," Griffin said. "Yes, time is of the essence. We're moving extra staff in to help you with those decisions."
The Georgia State Legislature went into special session in November to create measures that would assist reeling landowners. Two-hundred-million-dollars in tax credits for timber losses reportable on federal income tax returns was allocated for landowners who replant. And two special programs designed to reduce the risk of wildfires and insect infestations, to be administered by the GFC, were authorized. The Forest Debris Management Program (FDMP) provides for debris cleanup under an 80% cost-share plan. The Forest Access Road & Firebreak Restoration Project provides for fire prevention activities including debris clearing from existing firebreaks.
That's a handful and a challenge for GFC staff across the 28-county disaster area, whose relationships with customers is always of great importance.
"I've gotten incredible support from the commission," said landowner Patricia Middleton, whose 120 acres in Early County were already on a management plan guided by GFC Forester Stephen Martin. "He's come out to talk to me two or three times already. There are a lot of decisions to be made."
On a bumpy ride along sandy lengths of firebreaks, Middleton and Martin gauged conditions and somberly acknowledged previous work forever ruined. They settled on a plan to "clear cut, spray, burn and plant," with special care to preserve the burrows of her beloved gopher tortoises.
"I love my land and I love my trees," she said. "This is heartbreaking."
Similar tours on Mark Coffman's acreage 'cross county showed total destruction of a tract of big timber that was set to be clear-cut, until Michael upset the plan. Coffman was fortunate to move some timber out fairly quickly.
"But the mills are just not designed to absorb this kind of shock," he said.
Matthew Ferguson of Coastal Timberland in nearby Havana commiserates with landowners in need - but, "There's no earthly way we could help everyone get their wood up," he said. "Unfortunately we had to pick and choose and help our long-term customers who'd consistently supplied us with wood."
Facing Future Possibilities
As recovery phases continue to evolve, the GFC is analyzing the Michael experience to plan for "next time." Recently, a day-long "After Action Review" produced detailed documentation of the agency's response that covered logistics, human resources, administration and communication issues. A number of suggested improvements are being implemented or considered.
Georgia Forestry Commission specialists are focusing on storm after-effects that could impact weather, fire and pests. Fortunately, drenching rains that hampered debris removal early in the year have eased off, and the outlook for fire is "low to normal," according to Frank Sorrells.
"We know there's a lot of fuel on the ground," Sorrells said, "so we'll be monitoring conditions closely. We're encouraging more prescribed burning in the area, and debris burning with a permit. We want people to clean up as much as possible." Sorrells added that should fire risk increase, GFC air support and additional equipment would be strategically relocated for quick dispatch.
Because wind-damaged pine trees are a big draw for insects, GFC's Forest Health team is watching for early signs of trouble. Levels of southern pine beetles in Georgia have been low recently - however, swaths of fragrant, stressed trees could be a loud dinner bell for the invasive pests and other less aggressive pine bark beetles. Landowners are urged to be vigilant for tree needles that change color from dark green to pale green, to yellow and then red. GFC foresters can help with a diagnosis.
Equipment repairs have also been underway. As one would expect, pushing multi-ton trees and plowing through jagged debris can do damage to bulldozer parts, and this storm did a lot of that. Because demand has not lessened for the equipment, mechanics are keeping a brisk pace in a lot of GFC machine sheds.
Many landowners are planning to reforest their acreage and that will create a need for more seeds and seedlings. Georgia Forestry Commission Reforestation Chief Jeff Fields is on it.
"Our plan this year is to increase seedling production somewhat," Fields said. "So many questions still remain about time frames. For the next two to three years we expect to gradually increase production and work with private industry to meet demand."
And So It Goes...
Perhaps it is the nature of people who take to forestry to be realistic - and grateful. After all, no one ever said agriculture would be easy.
"The natural world calls the shots, we don't," said GFC Forester Stephen Martin, standing by his customer and friend, Mark Coffman. "As bad as it is here, it's worse in Florida."
Hurricane Michael left a lot of people hurting. Said one landowner whose retirement was in sight, "I waited 30 years for this, and it was over in 30 seconds." The sight of endless acres of trees, twisted and scattered as if a giant had dropped a handful of pixie sticks, still elicits pain. Yet these grounded Georgians are moving on.
"My job is to get my landowners in shape to where they need to be," said Chief Ranger Heard.
"I still feel blessed, and I'll do what's best for the land," Coffman said. "This place won't ever be the same, but this place is going to heal."
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia's environment, economy and heritage.
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