The powerful winds of Hurricane Laura dealt a huge economic blow to forest products industry in the state as it damaged or destroyed more than 757,000 acres of timberland, taking out 30 million tons of pine and 9 million tons of hardwood, more than all mills in Louisiana would use in a normal year.
Hurricane Laura struck south of Lake Charles as a Category 4 storm and remained a hurricane as it crossed the Louisiana-Arkansas border. It was the strongest storm to hit the state in more than a century and a half.
The destruction left in its path was enormous. According to a report from the LSU AgCenter, the damage acreage totaled 757,538. That’s an area almost twice the size of Lake Pontchartrain. And although the damaged area included both pine and hardwood, just the sawtimber damage estimate is more than 3.4 billion board feet, which equates to 120,000 loads of lumber would have semi-tractor trailers lined from Alexandria to Butte, Montana.
The loss is massive, with an economic value of more than $1.1 billion to the state’s forest economy, according to the report.
Immediately after the storm, pilots for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry performed a flyover with its fleet of aircraft, said Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, allowing the damage report to be calculated only days after Laura exited the state.
“We have a team of pilots and fixed wing aircraft across the state,” Strain said.
A computer mapping program allowed the quick recording of the acres damaged, he said. That information was able to be downloaded into a GIS system after the aircraft was on the ground. It is the same process LDAF uses for recording areas of forest with disease or damaged by fire.
The next immediate problem was how much of the downed timber might be salvaged. Harvesting trees off the forest floor, or worse, trying to untangle them after being toppled and twisted by winds, is more dangerous and adds to loggers’ costs. Loggers use machines meant to cut standing trees, not trees that are bent over.
“I only got four loads out yesterday,” said Evans logger Adam Jeanne two weeks after the storm. He said he usually can log 10 loads a day, though that is a limited number based on quotas at mills.
And that is the second prong of the problem. Mills were already at a full capacity before the storm, said State Forester Wade Dubea.
“A lot of (the fallen timber) isn’t necessarily going to find a home,” Dubea said.
Forest landowners like Bryant Kountz, who was selected the 2018 Outstanding Louisiana Tree Farmer, have to first assess how badly his forests in Southwest Louisiana where hit.
“It’s devastating,” Kountz said, estimating about 46 percent of his forest are lost. “A lot of old growth that I’ve preserved … We’re just kind of overwhelmed by the devastation, but we’ll get through it.”
Steve Templin of Alexandria is the consulting forester who works with Kountz and his tree farm. He said the first thing any landowner should do is document what happened and record what was lost.
“Trying to get folks to do salvage work is worth the effort but may not yield results because mills are full and logging costs are very high for trying to move around this damaged timber,” Templin said.
If the timber base is high, landowners might have a casualty loss, but that would have to be determined during the analysis.
Another complication is the wood that is harvested. The winds also twisted the pine, damaging the interior of the tree, which could cause the wood to disintegrate on a lathe, making the job of mill workers more dangerous. That puts the best use of the downed wood for chips for paper or fuel or to make pellets, said Dubea.
The window to salvage downed trees is narrow as Louisiana’s sultry environment tends to almost accelerate decomposition. When salvage is complete, landowners will have the task of moving the debris to replant. That takes resources that smaller landowners might not readily have available.
“I think it will be a cleanup effort more than a salvage effort for much of the smaller landowners,” Dubea said.
Help is available for those landowners through federal and state programs, which Strain said can be obtained through the Forest Productivity Program at LDAF or through federal programs at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The damage estimates gathered also will be used when the state asks for disaster aid in Congress. Strain said the state is trying to put this with an existing disaster aid request in hopes of speeding up the process of receiving it.
The cleanup effort is important because as the wood dries and begins to decay, the risks of insect infestation, disease and wildfire increase, Dubea said. That puts standing trees at risk, too.
“Trees still standing got stressed,” Dubea said. “It’s an ailing tree and insects will prey on those stressed trees.”
The state hopes part of the money requested can be used by smaller landowners to pay consultants to rewrite management plans and get back on track with that plan. Dubea said lessons learned from the losses of hurricanes Katrina and Rita should lead landowners to follow a plan.
“The market was so bad (after Katrina and Rita), they gave up on their management plan,” Dubea said. “We could have the same situation.”
That situation includes some landowners who waited to harvest in hopes prices for timber would increase. Some waited so long the trees grew larger than facilities in the region could handle.
“You might be holding it for five more years and when you cut it you won’t get a penny more than if you cut it when you planned,” he said. “Work with your forester, modify your plan and stick to it.”
Landowners who might need a consulting forester can look through the Association of Consulting Foresters or the Society of American Foresters. The Louisiana Forestry Association also has a link on its website where consulting foresters can be sought by zip code, https://www.laforestry.com/consulting-foresters.