Magazine article American Forests

Planting Resiliency: In the Aftermath of Hurricanes, Bringing Back Tree Cover Requires More Than Just Planting

Magazine article American Forests

Planting Resiliency: In the Aftermath of Hurricanes, Bringing Back Tree Cover Requires More Than Just Planting

Article excerpt

In the early hours of a September Sunday in 2004, Hurricane Frances swept ashore north of West Palm Beach, knocking out power to more than a million homes and businesses and uprooting trees as it drenched everything in its path. Sustained winds of near 105 mph were felt 85 miles from its center.

Fifteen months later Hurricane Wilma hit Palm Beach County, killing six and leaving 3.2 million without power. It was Florida's eighth hurricane in as many months.

Matthew King, the county's environmental program supervisor, described the 2004-2006 hurricane seasons as "the worst in recent history to hit Palm Beach County, especially since there were no major storms in the prior 10 years."

In addition to costing lives and destroying property, the storms damaged the region's green infrastructure, prompting one county commissioner to request a tree canopy study to determine the extent of the loss and the resulting impacts on environmental quality.

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That study, conducted by AMERICAN FORESTS, measured the loss of vegetation and calculated the resulting decrease in air and water benefits from green landcover. Loss of tree cover from the recent hurricanes exacerbated an already disturbing trend of canopy loss due to development.

AMERICAN FORESTS' Urban Ecosystem Analysis covered 1,213 square miles within Palm Beach County in conjunction with the county Department of Environmental Resources Management and with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Division of Forestry. A hurricane assessment measured changes in landcover between 2004 and 2006 when the region was battered by three major hurricanes--Jeanne, Frances, and Wilma. The high-resolution data allowed analysts to distinguish between trees lost to hurricane damage and those lost to development.

A second assessment measured landcover changes from 1996 to 2006, including the effect the changes had on air and water quality and stormwater runoff.

NATURAL CAPITAL

Urban forests provide enormous environmental benefits, among them improving air and water quality and slowing stormwater runoff. Palm Beach County's urban tree cover is natural capital that saves money otherwise spent to manage air and water. Investing in tree cover also helps meet environmental regulations and fulfills the county's goals for environmental protection.

AMERICAN FORESTS presented its findings to Palm Beach County's leaders along with the data and tools to allow them to better integrate natural systems into future development decisions. Building resiliency into the urban landscape now will lessen property devastation and reduce the cost of cleaning and rebuilding hurricane-prone areas.

Understanding Palm Beach County's challenges means understanding its surroundings. The county is part of the Everglades ecosystem, which stretches from Central Florida's numerous lakes south to the Florida Keys. Flooded grasslands and rich wildlife that resides within the county's half-million acres of natural areas characterize this unique ecoregion.

Natural areas protect the county's drinking water and providing thriving agriculture and tourism industries. West Palm Beach, for example, depends on natural water catchment areas to filter surface water for drinking. Palm Beach County also is subject to annual tropical storms and hurricanes that destroy property and the green infrastructure that protects its shorelines. Humans further changed the land with drainage projects, waterway channels, and agricultural practices that worsened flooding and adversely affected people and property.

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ANALYSIS

The study of landcover changes during hurricane season 2004 to 2006 yielded a loss of 17 percent of tree canopy, a total of 42,000 acres. During that same time frame, open space/grasslands increased by 9 percent or 33,000 acres. …

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