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  • Shannon Carnevale

Trees and Hurricanes


Through its Hurricane Preparedness for Hotels and Motels Program, the Florida Energy Extension Service hleps the tourist industry keep guests safe during lighting storms. UF/IFAS Photographer

In the bustling heart of Florida, Polk County stands out for its abundant agricultural lands, plentiful wildlife, and alluring landscapes. An integral part of this charm is the space we have for a community tree canopy and urban forests, and the sum of all the trees beautifying our homes, streets, parks, and schools. 


But our trees aren’t just for show - urban forests are our front line against urbanization’s side effects. They help curb air pollution, enhance water quality, minimize soil erosion, and provide habitats for wildlife. As mentioned in my June column, “The Urban Heat Island Effect: A Growing Challenge in Florida’s Urban Areas,” trees can also help fight the urban heat island effect and lower ambient temperatures around town. 


However, tree benefits come with a vulnerability to Florida’s frequent hurricanes, causing extensive tree loss in yards and parks. It’s crucial to consider planting wind-resistant species in our efforts to restore and sustain these green spaces.  


WIND-RESISTANT TREES: LESSONS FROM HURRICANES 


Learning from the significant damage inflicted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, University of Florida scientists embarked on a journey to understand which trees best withstand hurricane-force winds. Their findings provided a list of recommended species for replanting in hurricane-prone areas. 


While no tree is entirely “wind-proof,” some species have shown a higher resistance to wind-related damage. These include the sand live oak (Quercus germinata), southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), live oak (Quercus virginiana), crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), and sabal or cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). 


Pruned trees demonstrated higher survival rates in this study than unpruned ones, highlighting the importance of proper tree care and maintenance. 


Did you know? Shade trees and palm trees have very specific recommendations for pruning. For shade trees, pruning practices change based on the size and age of the tree. For palm trees, you should only ever cut off the brown fronds. “Hurricane pruning” or “toothpick-pruning” of palm trees, which removes all but just a couple green fronds, can make the palm trees less healthy and so, less able to resist strong winds. 

Environmental factors like soil conditions, water availability, and exposure to sunlight also play a vital role in a tree’s wind-resistance. 


PREPARING FOR THE HURRICANE SEASON 


With the Atlantic hurricane season usually intensifying in August, now is the time to prep your yard.  

Hire a certified arborist to prune your trees, increasing their wind resistance and overall structure. A good arborist will clear all the pruned materials from your property, preventing any potential storm debris. You can find a certified arborist by visiting the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) website: 

 

Remember, the worst time to prune your trees is right before a storm. City and County solid waste operators often don’t have time to collect recent tree pruning debris before a hurricane, leaving piles of debris that can become hazardous in strong winds. So, do your part by pruning your trees now and ensuring the waste is removed promptly. 


If there is already a named storm on the way, it’s often better to leave the trees unpruned than risk flying debris. If you’ve already pruned your trees and have a debris pile or have a tree that simply must be pruned because it is threatening your home, be sure you have rope and ground anchors available to secure the pile of debris before winds intensify. 


PLANTING WISELY: MAXIMIZING WIND-RESISTANCE 


After the storm, consider replanting wisely. In addition to choosing strong, wind-resistant trees, there are several steps you can take to boost your tree’s storm resilience: 


  • Root Space: Ensure your trees have ample root space, allowing them to anchor more firmly and grow healthily. UF/IFAS Extension has recommendations for the proper amount of root space for different species of trees. More info can be found at: edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP592

  • Pruning: Regular pruning is essential not just for tree health but also for increasing wind resistance.

  • Group Planting: Trees planted in groups tend to withstand winds better than individual trees.

  • Native Trees: Native trees often survive better than exotic species.

Some species are best avoided due to their weak wind resistance. These include sand pine (Pinus clausa), Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), water oak (Quercus nigra), and laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia).


If you have any questions about these recommendations, reach out to our Plant Clinic at 863-519-1057 or by email at polkmg@ifas.ufl.edu 


BE PREPARED THIS HURRICANE SEASON 


Hurricanes are a reality in Florida, but we can mitigate their impact on our community trees. By planting wisely, pruning regularly, and maintaining our trees’ health, we can cultivate trees that are not only a sight to behold but also strongholds against storms. 


As a reminder, you can always find me on social media with the handle @PolkNR on Twitter, Instagram, and Threads. Or, you can email me with any questions at scarnevale@ufl.edu. Looking for more information on urban forestry? Consider listening to our Naturally Florida podcast episode, “Trees and People: An intro to urban forestry” on all the major podcast platforms. 


To learn more about hurricane prep topics from UF/IFAS Extension Polk County, consider our blog collection on the subject: blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/polkco/tag/hurricane/. It includes topics such as preparing your boat for hurricane season, emergency water sources for your family, and proper pruning before and after storms.  


This article is informed by the scientific study “Wind and Trees: A Survey of Homeowners After Hurricane Andrew” by M. Duryea et al. (1996). The full study can be accessed here: dx.doi.org/10.48044/jauf.1996.006


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