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Hurricane Michael Resource Recovery

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The aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida.

Hurricane Michael Resource Recovery will be a long road. As part of our continued effort to raise awareness for disaster preparedness and relief, we took a trip up to Panama City, Florida. Yes, there is a Panama City, Florida, not to be confused with Panama City, Panama. We were heading up to rendezvous with the arborists from True Tree Service, who had been on location for the past 3 weeks working the earliest stages of the relief efforts after supporting the same efforts up in the Carolinas from Hurricane Florence.

We were observing the storm closely before it made landfall, witnessing the almost overnight shift from tropical storm to category 4 hurricane. The devastation reported by the weather channel, showed Mexico Beach, just south of Panama City, being completely flattened and washed away from the sustained winds of 155 mph and storm surge of 9 to 14 feet. Understanding the dynamics of this particular storm system validates the theories on global warming & climate change. The waters off the coast of Florida were significantly warmer, 4 to 7 degrees above what’s normal for this time of year. These warmer waters caused this storm to generate a great amount of energy in a short amount of time (roughly 72 hours) before making landfall and plowing straight through to the mid-Atlantic.

The storm damage  in Panama City was comparable to that which we observed last year in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. People’s lifetime homes had been destroyed, other damage so severe that residents could be seen loading up moving trucks to move their lives away from what had been a beautiful and historic community. Luckily Florida is part of the mainland, which meant that reconnecting power, delivering aid, and relief workers were able to be on the scene within days of the storm.

The greatest challenge the people face is returning to a life of normalcy. Although their spirits were strong, being gracious hosts to relief workers, and supporting their community to the best of their ability, there was a sense of gloom, a depression and anxiety for what it will take to rebuild their communities.

One resident told me, “it’s a facade,” referring to their strong spirits. “We’re in pain, doing our best to cope with the disaster.”

I told them, in my community of Naranjito in Puerto Rico, we would say “Eso es como vivimos.” It is a long road to recovery, and witnessing people at the beginning of this journey can inspire hope, but also makes you realize that this won’t be over anytime soon. 

For Panama City, and The Cove, the blown down trees were likely the starkest reminder of the long term impact of the storm. The Cove is a historic community, with tree lined streets, featuring a canopy with a lush green vibe that distinguished it as one of the most desirable communities in the area. After the storm, as we saw in PR, it seemed that for the trees that were left standing, every leaf was blown off of the branches that survived the high winds. The canopy was gone, and along with it, trees that had stood for over 100 years. 

After we settled into the community, we got to work documenting the area, and coordinating the next leg of the mission which was to salvage some of the downed timber resources as an example of what can be done with urban timber in massive storm events such as Hurricane Michael. Ian Wogan, lead arborist on site, and co-founder of True Tree Service, insisted that we should create a public display. He called it an “Art of Fact,” to highlight the extent of the storm damage, but also the opportunity to salvage the usable resources that would otherwise be chipped and burned as part of the FEMA waste reduction plan for post storm events such as Hurricane Michael.

There is an estimated $3 billion impact on Georgia’s agriculture industry.

Approximately 1 million acres of timberland was destroyed, most belonging to small or private landowners = $1 billion in timber.

The thought is, if we could find a way to mill the wood, and create a functional application to reuse this resource, then we could have a proof of concept to salvage this precious timber. In the time Ian was in Panama City he was able to make contact with Steve Cross, from Cross Saw Mill, in Iron City, Georgia, which just so happened to be about an 1.5 hour drive from Panama City. Steve Cross, is a former Air Force rocket scientist, and had a long history of DIY endeavors as a maker and engineer. He built the largest mill in the area with the specific purpose of milling large hardwood such as Live Oaks. As a long standing member of the community, Steve is known for his mill, as well as measuring the largest Live Oak in the area.

While deciphering his thick back country accent, you would shortly find that the man is a genius of sorts, not to be underestimated by his country look and vibe. He was yet another gracious host we met on the mission, with knowledge and wisdom to feed our curiosities and inspiration for the direction we were headed. Steve’s long standing connections to the Georgia Forestry department had been feeding him inside information, including the fact that there is an estimated 3 years worth of timber resources on the ground because of Hurricane Michael.

As work crews are filling into the disaster area, and mother nature is doing her part to break down what has fallen, the window of opportunity to collect these resources is rapidly closing. The uses for the types of wood that have fallen range from our concept of public art pieces to bring the disaster to spaces that might not otherwise remember or know the extent of the damage, to ship building, to making barrels for whisky & wine, to breaking down and creating coal for BBQ and energy production, and the list could go on for the array of other hardwood related products to be manufactured.

With all of this in mind, Ian, who is a veteran disaster relief worker, supporting recovery efforts in South Florida after Hurricane Irma, as well as in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, observed that this wood essentially goes to waste if the right connections didn’t come together to salvage it. Speaking at conferences and workshops in Miami, the topic of Urban Forestry conservation methods is a recurring one. Experts in the field reckon there has ought to be a better way to reuse or repurpose trees in urban environments that have failed during natural disasters or from other occurrences. As we debate these issues, we also have to actively pursue solutions that lead us to demonstrating what can be done.

The mission to the panhandle will serve as a proof of concept for salvaging and repurposing subtropical hardwood trees that failed during natural disasters. The intention is to host an exhibit in partnership with Magnus Sodiman, at his studio in Miami Design District, to exhibit the salvation and repurposing efforts to raise awareness for the victims of Hurricane Michael, and of the other natural disasters we have faced in the Caribbean. We will use this opportunity to sound the alarm for the impacts of climate change, and the need for society to adapt to a more sustainable and resilient means of existence in the face of these super storms and rapidly changing environment.

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