Tree experts survey Gulf coast damage from Hurricane Sally

Oct 22, 2020

Fallen trees are still piled up in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, more than a month after Hurricane Sally struck the Alabama Gulf Coast. Trees that have been growing for hundreds of years can take a long time to replace. Teams of forestry experts from across the Southeast are working Mobile and Baldwin Counties to study the damage.

Trucks collecting broken limbs and fallen trees piled on the curb are a common sight these days in coastal Alabama. Hurricane Sally may have destroyed half the trees in Baldwin County. John Graham is a horticulturist for the city of Foley. He’s been studying the storm’s effects in the city about a dozen miles from where Sally came ashore. Graham says his first impressions are not good.

"My initial guesstimate and I’ve been out here daylight until dark every day," Graham said. "Basically, since the all clear was made and my initial estimate was fifty percent canopy loss in Foley and that would be including, of course, private and public property trees."

Sally struck sixteen years to the day after Hurricane Ivan hit the area. Ivan was stronger, but Sally moved more slowly and it stuck around longer. Graham says the effects were similar.

Debris trucks gather downed trees following Hurricane Sally
Credit APR's Guy Busby

"I wasn’t personally here during Ivan, but a lot of the locals compare Sally to Ivan," Graham recalls.

"The biggest reason for her damage, was just the fact that she stopped on top of us. Basically it slowed down to a crawl, two miles per hour and slower and that coupled with the fact that our average was, in some areas, 20 to 24 inches of rainfall, 12 hours prior to Sally coming in and so we were very saturated in the low areas," he said. "A lot of the low-lying areas were where we had completely uprooted trees. Just the combination of the saturation, plus the slow moving. Sally really did the number on us -- the worst."

Teams of foresters have been working in Mobile and Baldwin counties to study what Sally’s impact was. It’s a joint effort by states across the Southeast to help each other during disasters.

"The Urban Forest Strike Team is being deployed this week," said Dale Dickens. He's urban forestry coordinator for the Alabama Forestry Commission.

“We started Monday, the 12th and we worked through Friday," Dickens said. "So far, we’ve covered several hundred trees in Mobile and we’re working in Foley and we’re also working on a trail down in Gulf Shores. Hurricane Sally was not a friend to our trees. A lot of trees were damaged and damaged severely. Most of those cleared and are being removed as debris."

What's left of the state champion Tupelo tree near Fairhope Pier
Credit APR's Guy Busby

The Urban Forest Strike Team is a group of highly trained arborists from seven different states that are down looking at the trees that possibly could be left safely and also identifying trees that pose a danger to people and personal property on public land. Team members are checking hundreds of trees in both counties, checking for weakness and damage that may pose a threat.

"The individual arborists, the task specialists as their referred to, will be working and looking at individual trees," said Dickens. "If they see something that according to FEMA guidelines can be removed and 75 percent of the cost reimbursed to the city, we’ll be marking those one way and if they have hangars meaning broken limbs that need to be pruned out, they’ll be marked another way and we don’t paint at all if the tree should be left the way it is."

As with other volunteers or utility crews from other states that come to help after disasters, the strike team brings in more expert support than local agencies can muster in a crisis. Again, John Graham.

“It’s nice seeing the support from other states surrounding," he said. "These things don’t discriminate so we’ll definitely see what we can do to return the favor when the time comes.”

There’s a lot that can be learned about these storms and such by going through certified arborists and people that know a lot about these trees and what species and what situations hold up better during certain storms and events and then it’s still a learning experience for us also. That’s the good and bad thing about nature. You’ll never know everything. Just as soon as you think you know everything about it, you’ll get a totally different situation unless you know where your vulnerabilities are."

The city of Fairhope, on Mobile Bay, was farther from the coast, but still took a hit. Patrick Waldrop is a retired forester and member of the city’s Tree Committee. He points out damage in Knoll Park.

"This probably needed a little bit of a thinning," said Waldrop.

"It looks nasty, but looking at it from a forester’s standpoint, I feel like we skated. We were lucky," he believed. 

A cedar tree left twisted by the fury of Hurricane Sally
Credit APR's Guy Busby

Waldrop says some trees still show the effects from hurricanes in the 60s and 70s.

"You can see this lean. Most of that is from Camille and Frederic, so these trees have been here a while.," he observed. "Probably the average age on these trees is 120 or better. This is an older stand.

The area still sustained damage. Near the Fairhope Pier, he looks over a large tree that had fallen. Until September sixteenth, the tree had been the state champion swamp tupelo, the largest member of its species in Alabama. Waldrop says that tree was almost 90 feet tall and had been growing since around the time Fairhope was founded in the 1890s.

"That tupelo, where it was, the soils are a little looser there. It was right on the Bay and I’m sure that ground was real saturated," said Waldrop.

"In fact, I’m not sure they didn’t get a little bit more rain being right close to the water you’re always in a little bit more danger so to speak," he said. 

While Sally’s overall impact may have been worse on the coast, Waldrop says the storm devastated spots on the Eastern Shore.

"We didn’t get decimated," he said. "But if you’ve got four trees down in your yard and you’ve been chainsawing all week, you’re going to do, ‘no, I got decimated.’”

Waldrop says that, as in other parts of coastal Alabama, Sally’s heavy rains and slow speed made its effects worse.

"And most of the ones that did, fall, as we were talking about earlier, it was from the ground being so saturated," he said. "The ones with shallow root systems just fallen over. You don’t see a lot of trees that were just snapped. Which tells me it really wasn’t as much wind as it was that slow movement and the water just saturated the soils."

"While it may take decades for new trees to grow to the size of those that were lost, the replacement effort is starting. Some of the trees that have been damaged are in the neighborhood of 100 years old, so those won’t be replaced for a long time," said Dale Dickens.

"But we do put in for supplemental funds. We’ve been able to do that in Dothan with Hurricane Michael. John’s also got plans for replanting and straightening up some of the trees that have been pushed partially over, so recover pretty much starts next month. Planting of trees in Alabama, we’ll say mid-October to mid-March, the wintertime is when we’ve got a lot of water and when it’s cooler is the best time for us to plant trees. So we won’t be waiting around.

Dickens says the time to start recovery is now.

"There’s an old saw that I’ll share with you, when’s the best time to plant a tree? And that’s 25 years ago or today, those are the two best times to plant trees."

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.