A partnership between several state and federal organizations has selected three cities in Mississippi — Brookhaven, Ocean Springs and Oxford — to receive tailored plans on management of urban forests to mitigate damage from heavy storms.
"We hope this really has an impact across the state," said Donna Yowell, executive director of the Mississippi Urban Forest Council.
Yowell said Brookhaven has an involved leadership and a good volunteer base. And because of its size, she hopes specific proposals created for Brookhaven can be emulated by many other Mississippi communities.
As part of the project spearheaded by Yowell, the three towns will receive specific policy and management recommendations that leaders may consider for implementation or future consideration. There will also be an inventory of trees species within selected areas.
Yowell and several other officials involved with the partnership met with members of the Brookhaven Tree Board and city department heads recently to discuss tree management practices and to deliver an initial draft of a management plan for the city.
Buck Abbey, a professor of landscape architecture at Louisiana State University, told officials about the difference between "victim trees" and "survivor trees."
"Victim trees" — like water oaks — are much more likely to be downed during a storm and cause infrastructure damage. "Survivor trees" — like cypress and magnolia — grow slower but are much more resistant to damage during hurricanes.
Abbey said the towns could work toward the goal of transitioning victim trees out of a community and replacing them with native species that will prove hardier.
Some management practices are already in place.
Brookhaven Public Works Director Steve Moreton said he tries to stay ahead of storms throughout the year. There's money budgeted for removal or trimming of dead or damaged trees on the city's right of way that pose a public hazard.
"But we're limited by money," Moreton said. "It's all about the dollars."
Moreton said it takes $2,000 to $2,500 for the city to take down and remove a tree. That lack of funds provided fodder for further discussion.
In almost all cases, neither private insurance nor FEMA will pay for the removal of a hazardous tree until it actually comes down. Abbey said, though, that it costs about three times more to remove a tree after it's knocked down during a storm because it often damages infrastructure or housing when it falls.
"We have to be able to show FEMA that tree canopy management can mitigate storm damage and lower costs for cities and FEMA," Yowell said.
Either way, big money is involved.
Local Civil Defense Director Clifford Galley said total cost of Hurricane Isaac debris disposal in the city alone could reach $500,000. Age is also a factor.
"The oak trees we have in Brookhaven are not young trees; they're 100-plus years old," Moreton said.
That's a problem, as Abbey said water oaks are not long lived, and it is old trees that are most in danger during heavy storm winds.
"Most of the trees that are close to dying get kicked in the grave by storms," Abbey said.
Brookhaven Tree Board members said they will examine the Brookhaven management plan they received and provide comments on it before a final meeting between project and city officials.