The environmental impacts of Hurricane Michael will persist for years, experts say, including greater potential of flooding and wildfires.

PANAMA CITY — When Hurricane Michael roared across the northeast Florida Panhandle a little more than a year ago, it brought inches upon inches of rain with it, soaking a landscape that had already seen more than its share of precipitation in the preceding months.


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At the same time, the Category 5 storm’s 160 mph winds toppled or snapped acres upon acres of trees, sending as many as 500 million to the ground, according to an estimate from Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service.


"We had about 2.8 million acres impacted," Karels said, "about 1.5 million (in which) that damage was catastrophic. In most cases, it wiped out or heavily damaged most all the timber and the big trees in those areas."


The results?


Well, for one, the fallen trees formed dams that exacerbated flooding across and around the area of the Panhandle hit by Hurricane Michael.


Most notably in Bay, Gulf, Liberty, Calhoun, Jackson and Washington counties, an estimated 1 billion to 1.5 billion gallons of water raced across the saturated ground, engorging local waterways and flooding a number of properties that had never previously been flooded, according to Brett Cyphers, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.


"It was already wet leading up to Hurricane Michael," Cyphers said. "You had a near-record rainfall over the course of that year, and it was also wet afterward. ... When you have the number of trees that were down, it kind of added insult to injury. You had that damming effect, which was the most immediate and largest contributor to flooding."


Less visibly, but with no less impact, Karels explained, the snapped trees were no longer able to take up water in the natural process called transpiration, in which groundwater is taken up from a tree’s roots into its limbs and leaves. That, too, helped exacerbate flooding issues.


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"When you end that (transpiration), all of a sudden, the surface water is impacted in two ways," Karels explained. "One way is clogging the rivers and the springs, and clogging the swamps and the sloughs and the slow-draining areas as well, and holding water back in there, because the water just can't run through that timber-strewn area."



"And then," Karels continued, "the big impact is those trees, in the middle to late spring and early summer, they're drawing a lot of water."


This year though, Northwest Florida caught a break from that dynamic, as rainfall dropped below normal across much of the area.


New floods and fires


While the flooding issues outlined by Cyphers and Karels were relatively localized, they hold a significant lesson for residents in and near all heavily forested areas across the state regarding hurricanes, according to Cyphers.


Currently, flood insurance is required for properties within the 100-year flood zone, any area with a 1% chance of flooding in any given year. But according to Cyphers, Hurricane Michael helps make the case that even people outside the 100-year-flood zone should purchase flood insurance in anticipation of future events like the Category 5 storm.


The Northwest Florida Water Management District provides technical assistance to local government on water issues, and according to Cyphers, it’s likely that Hurricane Michael will prompt those local governments to take a look at their "freeboard," a safety factor employed in floodplain management to account for unknown factors that could contribute to future flood heights.


Hurircane Michael will also change the advice that the NWFWMD provides to the public regarding flood risks from storms, Cyphers said.


"In the future, we'll encourage folks that, even if you’re not in a flood plain, we would still recommend — because it's inexpensive when you're not in a flood zone — to get flood insurance. ... We want people to do that to protect themselves if, God forbid, something like Hurricane Michael happens again," Cyphers added.


There also is another danger lurking for the eastern Florida Panhandle and adjacent areas, as forested land continues to recover from Hurricane Michael, according to Karels.


Until the damaged forestland is cleared out, or the downed trees deteriorate sufficiently, there will be an increased danger of wildfires, which could spread into neighboring areas unaffected by the hurricane, Karels said.


"We could see five to 10 years of increased wildfire threat," Karels said. "It (the threat) is there now, and it's very bad. It just depends on the weather."


Problematically, the downed trees producing a higher threat of wildfires also make it more difficult for fire crews to gain access to fires.


"It's very hard to work equipment in those areas," Karels said. "It's very different than it was a year ago, so it takes an intensive amount of people, It's very hard on the equipment, and a dangerous situation for our firefighters."


Wildfires also will present a problem that will spread wider than even the burning forestland, according to Karels.


"... As those trees decay and start on fire, they start to put out a tremendous amount of smoke," Karels said. "That will be one of the big threats in the years to come — wildfires with a lot of smoke issues involved, and the potential for smoke on highways or interstates. All of that (will be) because the downed fuel is starting to decay enough that now the trees start to burn."


Yet another looming issue for the forestland affected by and adjacent t, the path of Hurricane Michael, is an outbreak of bark beetles, insects that attack and kill pine trees. In some places hit by Hurricane Michael, outbreaks have already been observed.


"None of it is outside that real bad zone yet," Karels said, "but that could come." In the meantime, he said, Florida Forest Service personnel are flying across the area of damaged trees on a weekly basis to monitor any spread of bark beetle infestations.


Progress being made


Even though vegetation now is coming back, and vegetation like tiny sweetgum trees is boosting transpiration, it could be a long time before the forestland devastated by Hurricane Michael returns to normal, according to Karels. But some significant progress toward that end has already been made.


According to Cyphers, 29 miles of area waterways have been cleared of debris, and an additional $25 million in government funding will clear an additional 11 miles.


"We're encouraged by the progress that's already been made, but we'll obviously be tracking closely from a hyrdological standpoint the increased benefits from further work," Cyphers said. "It looks much better, and any additional work is going to improve it even more."


The Florida Forest Service is heavily involved in efforts to bring the forestland back to normal, in part because of a change in philosophy resulting from Hurricane Michael.


Routinely, Karels said, the Florida Forest Service will "come in very heavily after a hurricane for response and then usually go home." But with Hurricane Michael, he said, "we decided right off the bat that we would stay." As a result, the FFS has opened up 1,100 miles of forest roads and also installed fire lines.


Reforesting is starting, Karels said, and will be sustained with federal disaster funding. Currently, he said, the FFS is working with landowners in the federal Emergency Forest Restoration Program.


"We want them to start," Karels said, "because there's so much acreage and only so many contractors — tree planters and site prep people. ... If you can get some of it done this year ... that starts to take a bite out of this really big impact zone."


The recovery of the area’s waterways is proceeding nicely back toward normal, according to Cyphers.


"Hydrologically, I don’t think we’re that far off," he said.


For the affected forestland, the prognosis is for a much longer recovery, according to Karels.


"Normal is a hard thing to say," he said. "How long will it take to put this land back in working forest? ... I would say a minimum of a decade."