Baton Rouge cleans up after hurricane

When Hurricane Gustav slammed into Louisiana on September 1, 2008, it packed winds of 115 mph and heavy rainfall. By the time the storm was over, it had done an estimated $4.3 billion in damage and left 48 people dead.

Perhaps the hardest hit area was Baton Rouge, where fierce winds and as much as 11 inches of rain left the worst devastation that anyone in the city could recall. Buildings were torn apart, electrical lines were downed, and debris lay everywhere. Perhaps the most damage, though, occurred to Baton Rouge’s tree canopy. Not only did the city lose many of its trees, those trees fell across cars, power lines, streets, lawns, etc., and would have to be removed before any type of rebuilding could be done. The story of how Baton Route came together to clean up and begin a comprehensive tree replanting program is one of the few positive tales to come out of Hurricane Gustav. It also serves as a model for other communities faced with similar storm damage.

For two solid weeks following the storm, city tree crews worked to simply cut trees that had fallen across roadways and push the debris to the roadside in order to get traffic moving.

“In terms of total damage, we really just caught a bad combination of factors. We had a very strong storm that was very slow moving, and we were on the east side of the storm, where the heaviest winds are,” says Steve Shurtz, city arborist for Baton Rouge. “We had gone through Katrina and Rita back in 2005, but Hurricane Gustav had so much rain out in front of it that by the time the 93 mph winds got to us, the ground had been pretty well saturated.”

The wet soils led to tree blowdowns throughout the city. “It was the worst I’ve seen in this area; we had a number of trees that simply blew over,” says Shurtz, a certified arborist who has been caring for trees in Baton Rouge since 1977. In addition to the wind and water, the high number of shallow-rooted water oaks (Quercus nigra) growing in the area exacerbated the number of blowdowns. He adds, “They are our most common large tree. They’re naturally occurring, and in an urban setting they have about an 80-year life span. They get up to about 80 feet tall and are very prone to decay as they age. We lost a huge number of those in the storm. It combined to put an awful lot of wood on the ground.”

As the storm approactitle, the city began following its plan for dealing with the tree damage and debris it knew was likely coming. Shurtz says that organization before a storm is important. “I would advise any community to have a plan in place prior to a storm,” he says.

Shurtz also cautions that there’s a limit to what can be done far in advance, and that there can sometimes be issues with cities having contractors on-call to help out in the event of a storm. “Experience has shown, particularly in a big storm, that those contractors will sometimes renege on you and go to wherever the most damage occurred and where most of the work is. So, now we get people lined up as the storm approaches; we know who to call,” he says.

The night before Gustav struck, Shurtz called in the city’s three tree crews, along with field employees from the public works department who are conscripted to help with road clearing in the event of a storm. As the wind began picking up, the calls about trees down across roadways started coming in. The crews would go out to clear those trees as quickly as possible. Once the winds reactitle 30 to 40 mph, the crews were called back in to safely wait out the storm. Once winds calmed back down to 30 to 40 mph, the crews were back out to survey the devastation. So began months of intensive tree cleanup work.

Some 2 million cubic yards of woody debris was collected in Baton Rouge following Hurricane Gustav. The material was transported to three different sites in the city and chipped.

“The first task was to clear major roadways for emergency vehicles and to get traffic moving again,” Shurtz explains. “At that point, we’re not collecting. We’re just cutting and pushing. In fact, we did very little of what I’d call sophisticated tree work during the cleanup process. We got all of our big front-end loaders and grapple hooks on the road, and we would cut the trees and push everything to the side of the road to let traffic through. And, we did that for two straight weeks, 40 to 50 people. There were a lot of really big trees down out there.”

The debris contractor followed behind the city’s cutting-and-pushing crew and brought with them every “trailer, truck, Bobcat and piece of loading equipment they could find,” says Shurtz. The city of Baton Rouge approactitle large landowners in the community to arrange access to undeveloped land in the city to serve as drop-off points for wood waste, which can create a major logistical challenge.

“After Gustav, we collected 2 million cubic yards of woody debris,” says Shurtz. “We had three drop-off points where a large national contracting firm coordinated all of the debris collection, and we had a local contractor that chipped the wood waste into mulch.” With that much mulch available, it was quickly snapped up by power plants and others running wood chip boilers. “It was pretty much shipped out of town as quickly as it was chipped up,” he says.

While downed trees were still being cleared, attention turned to trees that had been damaged in the storm but had not toppled. “We got into hangers and leaners and takedowns,” says Shurtz. He credits the work of the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban Forestry South team which, led by Dudley Hartle, put together crews of forestry professionals and certified arborists from throughout the Southeast to come to Baton Rouge and mark trees. “They were here for two solid weeks doing that,” Shurtz says. “They used a dot system: a green dot meant that a tree had serious hangers threatening the right-of-way, a red dot meant the tree was damaged beyond repair and had to be taken down.”

ISA, the Society of Municipal Arborists, the U.S. Forest Service and others created the program following Hurricane Katrina. “It’s a growing and developing program that’s getting more sophisticated,” says Shurtz. Using “strike teams,” the group can send qualified forestry professionals and arborists to respond to storm damage, whether it’s a hurricane or an ice storm (as it did in Kansas City last year). The dot system that was used corresponded to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s standards, so that the costs of the tree work would be covered financially by the federal government.

Wet soils, combined with the existing stresses faced by urban trees, led to many blowdowns in the high winds.

Those teams even compiled a detailed GPS database of the location of each of these trees, which was handed over to the contractor awarded the work of dealing with the hazard trees. “There was a team of experienced, training arborist crews who did this work,” Shurtz explains. “Even though our tree crews know what we’re doing, when you’re in the aftermath of a storm like that, you just don’t have the time. Having these crews come in a week after the storm like they did made a huge difference. We also had visiting city arborist teams from places like Mobile, Ala., which was terrific. We got a tremendous number of hangers and leaners out of the way in a short time.”

Out-of-state contractors are often relied upon in storm recovery because the local experts are already swamped with work. “The local tree care companies with one or two trucks aren’t really equipped to help with the overall storm cleanup, and besides, they’re swamped with work from their normal clients, as well as the thousands of people calling them up to say they have a fallen tree on their house,” says Shurtz. “We’ve learned that when you have a hurricane, not only are the local tree care companies busy, but it seems like half of the tree care companies in the rest of the country are down here, too.”

Crews of trained forestry professionals and certified arborists marked hazard trees throughout the city and created a GPS database of each tree’s location. Contractors then used that information to prune and remove trees as needed.

In a state like Louisiana, where tree care professionals are required to be licensed by the state department to agriculture and forestry, that can pose logistical challenges. After Gustav, the state opened its licensing program to out-of-state contractors, which worked out well. “A great number of the out-of-staters who came in actually went and took the exam, which is a reasonably comprehensive test, so they were working legally,” says Shurtz.

There also were any number of other out-of-state firms that focused on debris removal and stump grinding in Baton Rouge following Hurricane Gustav. “As long as they’re not dealing with standing trees, we really don’t push the licensing issue with them,” he explains.

In the year and a half following the storm, city crews continue to occasionally see trees in poor health or with hangers due to storm damage, but by and large, tree care in the city has returned to normal. That’s a relief, because the health of the trees is an important issue in the community.

Shurtz says that over the three-plus decades he has been managing the tree population in Baton Rouge, growth in the community and new development have gradually led to a decline in the city’s tree canopy. “Back in 1994, we did a canopy study that showed our parish [county] had approximately a 55 percent canopy cover. I would say that since that time leading up to the storm, we probably lost another 15 percent of our canopy. And, I would say that in Hurricane Gustav alone we probably saw a 3 percent canopy loss,” he explains.

One group leading the charge to help increase the city’s canopy is Baton Rouge Green (, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the benefits of trees. That organization has planted some 30,000 trees in the last 15 years. “They do a tremendous job in assisting us in tree planting and tree advocacy,” says Shurtz.

The city also has added hundreds of new trees in the downtown area, as well as along boulevards. In most cases, storm hardiness is one consideration when choosing new tree species. “There has been quite a bit of research in the South on tree damage following hurricanes and examining species survival rates,” says Shurtz. The trees that researchers have found that are the most hurricane resistant are live oak, bald cypress and southern magnolia. “When it comes to replanting, I like to use those where possible, but I also want diversity to protect against some disease or insect in the future,” he adds. “I like to mix things up. Besides, I’ve heard experts say that once wind speeds reach 90 mph, it doesn’t much matter what type of trees you have, you’re going to see catastrophic loss.”

Hopefully, the trees of Baton Rouge will avoid a repeat of that fate for many years to come.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.