Monday, August 25, 2014

10 years after Charley, Central Florida's tree canopy springs back

August 12, 2014|By Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel
Driving down from Virginia in July 2004 to start their new lives in Poinciana, Josh Folb and his wife had this conversation:
"Hey, wait a minute. There are hurricanes in Florida," Josh said.
"They don't happen that often," replied Belinda Folb. "You're worrying about nothing. They don't happen in Central Florida."
On Aug. 13, less than two weeks after they moved into their home, Hurricane Charley blew through as the frightened Folbs huddled with their cats inside their hallway bathroom. With winds as high as 105 mph, the Category 4 hurricane downed power lines and uprooted thousands of trees.
One of those trees was the 10-foot live oak in the Folbs' front lawn. The tree narrowly missed their house, falling on a chain-link fence. To remove it, Josh cut the trunk as close to the ground as he could.
A few weeks later, from that little stump, a sprig sprouted. A new oak began to grow where the old tree had died. The new tree was scrawny and pathetic.
They named it Charley.
"We named it Charley because of the storm, but also because it reminded us of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It was a sad-looking little tree," said Belinda, 35.
Ten years later, that scrawny tree is 20 feet tall, its trunk engulfing the old stump.
"There was so much destruction in Central Florida and so much rebirth," said Josh, 36. "I just think that is so awesome."
Charley — with help from hurricanes Frances and Jeanne later that year — took a buzz saw to the Orlando area's urban forest. The city of Orlando lost an estimated 20,000 trees. Winter Park lost at least 8,000 trees, almost a third of the trees on city-owned rights of way and parks.
"It will take 20 years for that urban forest to recover to the extent of what was here before the storm came through," said Andy Ketsely, Orlando's urban forester.
Although Orlando has replanted 10,000 trees in the 10 years since the hurricane, they are smaller than the mature trees they replaced. They are also different kinds of trees that city officials hope will prove more hurricane-resistant.
"Instead of laurel oaks, we plant live oaks. Instead of red maples, we plant magnolias," Ketsely said.
In Winter Park, about 5,000 trees have been planted on city property with an eye toward replacing the number of aging laurel oaks that dominate the city's urban forest. The replacement trees are live oaks, maples, elms and crape myrtles, said Dru Dennison, Winter Park's head arborist.
"We have been trying to diversify the species. There should be no more than 10 percent of any one species in an urban forest," Dennison said.
The lasting effect of Charley was the transformation of streets and neighborhoods that were once tree-lined or shady but are now studded by stumps.
Perry Freiwald lives on one of those streets in Edgewood. In his front lawn is the large stump of the huge live oak that Charley knocked into his neighbor's yard. Today, a garden gnome and a potted plant sit on the stump.
But Charley left an adjacent live oak standing. The trees in his front yard were one reason he bought the house 19 years ago.
The surviving oak provides shade and lower air-conditioning bills, and though it leans toward his house and its branches reach over his room, he believes its beauty outweighs the potential danger come the next hurricane.
"It's still worth the risk to me," said Freiwald, a 62-year-old retiree.
Three years after Hurricane Charley, Josh and Belinda Folb sold their Poinciana house to his sister, Leah, and moved back to Virginia. They recently returned for a vacation and a chance for Belinda to fulfill a dream.
"When we moved in, I saw this tree in the front yard, and I thought, 'It's going to be so beautiful, and our kids are going to climb in the tree,'" said Belinda. "But after the hurricane, my tree is gone, my dream is gone."
Now the tree is back, bigger, taller and stronger than before. And the Folbs' son, Michael, born four years after Hurricane Charley, is old enough to make his mother's dream come true.
"The irony is now he can climb the tree," Belinda said.
With a boost from his mother, 6-year-old Michael Folb climbed into the lower branches of the tree named Charley. And then he quickly begged his mother to help him get down. or 407-420-5392     407-420-5392