By Ian Leahy

Miami Beach
Damage to Miami Beach following Hurricane Irma. Credit: Daniel Di Palma.

A DEVASTATING HURRICANE is a strong reminder that Miami’s trees are an ever changing, living infrastructure growing in an ever-changing, living city.

But trees don’t function like most infrastructure. A fallen streetlight can be replaced, even upgraded to make it better after a storm. A pothole can be patched over. But a large tree that has taken decades to grow can only be replaced by a small tree just beginning its journey. Years of ever-increasing public health benefits, stormwater and air pollution removal services eliminated in one ferocious gust.

It is for this reason that American Forests’ Community ReLeaf program implements a comprehensive and repetitive process for building long-term urban forestry capacity in cities.

With a goal of planting 1 million trees and increasing Miami-Dade County’s tree canopy from 19.9 percent to 30 percent, we have worked for several years with local partners to develop countywide tree canopy assessments, write a restoration master plan and create an interactive online Canopy Planner tool so city leaders can project different scenarios and track their progress. Throughout, we have turned data into action by strategically planting trees in areas of highest need, from school grounds in underserved neighborhoods and vacant lots to parks and a recreation trail.

Then, Hurricane Irma struck.

Irma was the most intense hurricane to make landfall on the U.S. mainland since Katrina. While Houston’s Hurricane Harvey produced epic flooding, Irma’s trademark was its winds, which left massive amounts of debris and a public attitude that quickly soured toward trees.

Yet, with all the social, economic and environmental benefits urban trees provide, research tells us the way to turn a city’s urban forest from a liability into an asset in extreme weather is not to abandon the tree canopy, but rather enhance it with denser clusters, more native species and better maintenance. That requires a sophisticated public-private urban forestry program.

So, we are revisiting work we’d already checked off the list. Usually tree canopy data is good for five years, but we are working alongside the University of Florida and Miami-Dade County, with generous support from Bank of America, to revise our 2016 tree canopy assessment so the data reflects Miami-Dade’s post-hurricane reality.

We also renewed promotion of our Disaster ReLeaf Fund to increase tree planting in both Houston and Miami and are adapting our restoration focus. For example, we planted 60 trees with Bank of America and community volunteers last fall in Serena Lakes Park, not only replacing dozens lost to the hurricane, but also adding new trees to continue the march toward a 30 percent canopy goal. We will add additional plantings with Coca-Cola Foundation, Bacardi and others this year.

Lastly, our messaging is shifting in the wake of the hurricane as we address concerns of a public that is skeptical of trees after seeing the damage they can wreak. Our goal is to help build broader support for a robust and equitable tree canopy that is increasingly critical in a city facing serious threats from increased temperatures and extreme weather.

Ian Leahy writes from Washington, D.C., and is American Forests’ director of urban forest programs.