Laura's $1.1B economic blow to forest industry

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.