Nearly six months have passed since Hurricane Michael bellowed through Florida with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph – just 3 mph shy of a Category 5, and yet it remains difficult to accurately depict the vast destruction. In just a few hours, Michael caused unprecedented damage across an 80-mile swath encompassing 11 counties, taking lives, destroying communities, and devastating livelihoods.
Approximately 72 million tons of timber, covering nearly 3 million acres, was broken or blown over. More than 1.3 million acres of pine timber sustained catastrophic and severe damage. The total timber loss is conservatively estimated at $1.3 billion, accounting for most of the $1.5 billion in total damage to Florida agricultural commodities.
The hardest hit areas are some of the most forested counties in Florida. Eighty percent of the impacted land is owned by over 16,000 private forest landowners, who are facing limited recovery options. Unlike annual crops, timberland insurance is not commonly available. With this overwhelming loss of income, landowners have little incentive to reforest their land – forest land that is not only a vital resource for providing healthy watersheds, but essential to the local economies who rely heavily on this industry.
Salvage operations have been highly challenged by the volume of timber on the ground, impeded road access, contractor availability, and market conditions. What was blown over would normally supply the mills in the impacted area for up to a decade. These limitations, along with the increased threat of wildfire and invasive species, have made removing debris a priority. Debris removal is the first step toward effectively and efficiently addressing the complex nature of the extraordinary recovery efforts and essentially will allow the process of reforestation to begin.
While reforestation is the ultimate goal, the wildfire threat is serious and cannot be ignored. The amount of dead and downed fuels has become a large tinder box, creating the potential for a significant increase in the number, intensity, and duration of wildfires over the next three to ten years. There is an average of 58 tons of fuel per acre in the impacted area, a ten-fold increase from what was typically on the ground before Hurricane Michael. In the catastrophic areas, there are over 100 tons per acre.
The build-up of fuels makes it more difficult to suppress wildfires in both the wildlands and the wildland urban interface, where 233 communities are at risk. The response to this situation requires a multi-prong approach of wildfire prevention and mitigation, adequate suppression forces and hazardous fuel reduction.
Coined as the most destructive storm to ever hit a forest community, it will take years – perhaps decades – to realize the full extent of the damage incurred by Hurricane Michael. Even so, the detrimental impact to landowners, communities, timber resources, and the forest products industries in both the short-term and foreseeable future have been clearly identified. Government agencies as well as industry and private entities are working together to find solutions and to secure federal and state aid. It is imperative for all to continue to educate those who may not be keenly aware of just why the storm name Michael was retired by the World Meteorological Organization earlier this month. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.