About this series: In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Beaufort County, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette asked local leaders and others to weigh in on what went well and what could have gone better. Lessons emerged that may better prepare us for when the next hurricane hits.
Hurricane Matthew delivered the Lowcountry a tough lesson: The trees locals love also can be their Achilles’ heel.
“A lot of people don’t like them all of a sudden after 50 years of loving them,” said Hilton Head tree consultant Gary Mullane. “(People) can’t overreact to it, but that’s tough to say to someone with five trees on their roof.”
There is no precise estimate for the number of trees that fell during Matthew. But a reasonable estimate of about five to 10 downed trees per acre during the storm would mean at least 120,000 trees fell on Hilton Head Island alone, said Scott Liggett, the town’s director of public projects and facilities.
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Some of the tree damage may have been preventable, so more should be done to limit future risk, local leaders say.
In addition, some businesses and homeowners on Hilton Head Island might be cutting down healthy trees in Matthew’s wake, according to town and community association officials.
Hilton Head and Beaufort officials are considering changes to their tree policies to limit damage during future storms.
“I think we have to have more leeway, that we have to let common sense rule,” said Beaufort City Manager Bill Prokop. “We have to be able to say, ‘This tree is a risk, and let’s not take the risk because we’ll see what we just saw again.’ ”
Mullane, who serves as arborist at Sea Pines, said he’s been pleading for 27 years for tree policies to address more safety concerns.
“This island before its modern development was a tree farm,” said Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley. “Those trees were planted to be harvested, and some of those pines are at the end of their expected life. That will be a conversation that we will need to have when we’re past all this.”
Riley said he would like to see a review of the island’s vulnerable trees to identify those that should come down, while protecting trees that are healthy.
Still, revising tree policies requires a balance of strong local opinions after Matthew.
“We’ve got the person who wants an intensive reforestation effort now,” Riley said. “And we’ve got the person that wants us to cut down every remaining tree so this kind of damage never happens again. The balance, I think, is there somewhere in between the extremes.”
Science of storms and trees
While plans for revising local tree policies have not yet been adopted, experts offer several suggestions to mitigate tree damage before the next hurricane.
Scientists at the University of Florida analyzed tree damage after 10 Florida hurricanes and found advanced planning of species selection and planting patterns can prevent some tree damage. Here are some of their recommendations:
▪ Plant trees in groups of five or more that are within 10 feet of each other, and they will tend to survive winds better than individual trees.
▪ Provide ample room for trees to grow. Avoid lining trees close to curbs, because root and soil space becomes sparse. Weaker tree roots lead to a loss of strength during storms.
▪ Invest in more wind-resistant tree species. Researchers classified loblolly pines, the most common pine tree found on Hilton Head Island, as having medium-low wind resistance. Water oaks are even less wind resistant.
▪ Plant more palms. As a group, palm species survive hurricanes better than broadleaf and conifer trees.
▪ Continue assessing trees long after a hurricane passes. Many species, including palms and pines, can appear undamaged but show signs of decay months later. For example, pines can appear green for a year, then suddenly turn yellow.
Hilton Head officials are also considering a change to the town’s tree-permitting policy.
With thousands of trees down across the island after Matthew, the town issued a temporary blanket authorization for removing storm-damaged trees to eliminate the hassle of the permitting process normally in place.
But some people are taking advantage of the lack of enforcement by removing healthy trees, which still require a permit, said Rocky Browder, the town’s environmental planner.
The Omni Resort, for example, is one of the businesses under investigation, town attorney Brian Hulbert told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Contacted by the newspapers, Warren Woodard, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, said he was unaware of the town’s investigation. He also said he did not know how many storm-damaged trees the company’s contractor, Bartlett Tree Experts, removed and that he had no knowledge of any improper removal.
Town investigators must distinguish which, if any, of the Omni’s approximately 100 fresh stumps were healthy trees, Hulbert said. Each citation carries a fine of up to $1,092, he said.
Hulbert was unable to provide names of other businesses that he said are also under investigation for improper tree removal.
In the future, the town is considering requiring out-of-town contractors to sign an affidavit stating they will remove only fallen trees or “leaners,” Browder said.
However, he said he recognizes the policy would still largely depend on tree lovers alerting the town of offenders.
Removing trees behind private gates
Some private gated communities on Hilton Head are wrestling with similar issues.
Except for North and South Forest Beach homes, the Town of Hilton Head Island does not have jurisdiction for regulating tree removal on any single-family residential lots, Browder said. Some gated communities have their own tree-removal policies, while others follow the town’s lead.
In Hilton Head Plantation, some residents are taking advantage of the situation in the aftermath of Matthew by “trying to clear-cut their lots,” said general manager Peter Kristian.
This comes after the plantation already eased tree-removal restrictions in July.
Before, the plantation’s policy did not allow healthy trees to come down, he said. Now, to remove a healthy tree, residents must plant a replacement elsewhere on their property or on common property, or contribute to the neighborhood’s tree-mitigation fund.
Although Sea Pines has not verified reports, officials there said they have received calls from residents reporting neighbors who are improperly removing trees.
Having fewer trees is worrisome to some local tree lovers.
“I hope this isn’t a knee-jerk response to Matthew,” Beaufort resident Paula Loftis said.
She pointed to cleaner air, increased wildlife and erosion prevention as a handful of benefits trees provide.
“I don’t think it’s that we’re going to have to cut down all these trees,” said Riley, Hilton Head’s town manager. “But how do we manage this urban forest?”