Louisiana’s forest losses from the 2020 hurricanes

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Figure 1. Timberland damage in Calcasieu Parish. Figure 2. Timber damage in Calcasieu Parish. Photos by Michael Blazier.

The 2020 hurricane season was historic, and it unfortunately brought unprecedented damage to Louisiana’s forests. The most active Atlantic hurricane season was in 2020, generating 30 named storms. Louisiana was hit by 20% of those storms, as four hurricanes and two tropical storms passed through the state. Among this record-setting number of named storms affecting Louisiana were two that substantially damaged its timberlands, Laura and Delta.

Hurricane Laura formed on Aug. 20, 2020, and made landfall one week later near the town of Cameron. As it made landfall, Laura was at the full force of a Category 4 hurricane, with 150 mph winds. This wind speed made it the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana since 1856. Laura continued to remain strong as it passed through the southwestern and central parts of the state, remaining at hurricane strength until nearly the Louisiana-Arkansas state line in Claiborne Parish. Laura’s path went through the most heavily forested portions of the state, damaging timberlands in the process. Trees were heavily broken and felled in its path (Figures 1 and 2).

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Unfortunately, the hard-hit region was subjected to a second hurricane soon after Laura. Hurricane Delta formed on Oct. 1 and made landfall near the town of Creole on Oct. 9, which was just 15 miles from where Laura arrived in the state. As the 10th named storm impacting Louisiana within one year, Delta set a record for the state. While at its peak Delta was also a Category 4 hurricane like Laura, it weakened to Category 2 strength (with winds of approximately 100 mph) as it struck Louisiana. After beginning its trek through Louisiana near Laura’s point of landfall, Delta tracked more eastward than Laura. Its path went through central and northeastern Louisiana, and it weakened to tropical storm strength near Alexandria. Although it was weaker than Laura, Delta likely had greater damage to timber than a hurricane of its strength typically would. Forests hit by Laura had many trees felled, leaving remaining trees more exposed to further wind. In addition, Tropical Storm Beta passed through southwestern Louisiana between hurricanes Laura and Delta. The heavy rains of Beta saturated the soil and made trees more susceptible to being thrown over by winds.

Assessing the volume and value of timber lost to these hurricanes was facilitated by coordination between multiple agencies and the LSU AgCenter. Shortly after Hurricane Laura, a hurricane recovery task force was organized and coordinated by the Louisiana Forestry Association. This task force consisted of representatives from the forestry industry, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF), U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, LSU AgCenter and others. The task force held a series of online meetings to gather information on industry and forestland impacts and efforts among task force partners to determine damages. The LDAF, Forest Service and LSU AgCenter partnered to gather and analyze damage data. The LDAF performed aerial reconnaissance soon after Hurricane Laura passed through the state, and the Forest Service worked with LDAF to integrate that data into geographic information systems. The LSU AgCenter used the aerial data to determine the forestland area lost in each parish and the Forest Inventory Analysis data of the Forest Service to estimate the timber volumes lost within the lost forestland area. These procedures were repeated after Hurricane Delta.

Hurricane Laura damaged forests in 22 parishes with a total area of lost timber of nearly 800,000 acres. This area is roughly equal to the entire acreage of Beauregard Parish. A total of $1.2 billion of timber was damaged by Laura. The top parishes in terms of timber value lost were all located in southwestern, central and north central Louisiana (Table 1). Vernon and Rapides parishes were especially hard hit due to the presence of the Kisatchie National Forest, which has large areas of relatively old, large trees.

Forests of 12 parishes sustained damages from Hurricane Delta. The total value of timber lost to Delta was approximately $297 million. As with Laura, the parishes losing the highest volumes and values of timber were those with the Kisatchie National Forest. Vernon and Rapides parishes were once again hit hard by the hurricane; Winn Parish also lost a high amount of timber volume and value (Table 2).

In total, the hurricanes of 2020 wrought approximately $1.5 billion in timber damage. This value is worth nearly twice what timber cutting generates in mill-delivered timber revenues in one year in Louisiana. The volumes of lost timber could conservatively supply enough wood to keep one paper mill, six paneling mills and 26 sawmills operating for one year. Unfortunately, there is little potential to salvage this downed timber. Salvage logging is inherently hazardous and time-consuming because trees are felled haphazardly by the winds (Figures 1 and 2). The repeated hurricanes, tropical storm and rains that have inundated the state made much of the affected area inaccessible for months afterwards. Within about two weeks of trees being felled, fungal degradation of logs eliminates their value for salvage as sawtimber, the most valuable forest product. In 2021, a high priority must be placed on protection of the remaining forests in the hurricane-affected areas. Downed and standing damaged trees are an attractant to insects and diseases, which can spread to healthy surviving trees. Furthermore, downed trees increase the risk of wildfires. There is also a need for further accounting of the damages done to Louisiana forestry by the 2020 hurricanes. The lost values of timber described here account for only the loss of standing timber; the economic impact of losing timber is compounded by the need to “go back to square one” for forests that must be replanted instead of ever reaching their full potential for producing forest products. In addition, the vast numbers of trees lost in urban and suburban areas reduces property values.

Although these losses are challenging, forests have great resiliency. The lush climate and soils of Louisiana grow some of the most productive forests in the world, so in the years ahead much of this affected area could be back on track for growing timber. The LSU AgCenter, LDAF, Natural Resource Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service, and Farm Service Agency all provide expertise and resources to help in forest remediation and restoration. Any forest landowners in the damaged areas can contact their local offices for these agencies to get assistance.

Michael Blazier is a professor and forest management specialist at the Hill Farm Research Station.

6/8/2021 8:37:23 PM
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