This week, Hurricane Isaac threatens to hit the same area that was hit by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. Ever since I experienced a flood firsthand, I have been in awe of storms and how extreme weather can have an impact on people and places. The memory I have of being evacuated from my home gives me a clearer understanding of storms like Hurricane Katrina and how traumatic it must have been for the people of New Orleans. So when I heard that another hurricane was heading towards the Gulf Coast, it reminded me of the devastating impact storms can have.

Workers clear a downed tree after Hurricane Irene. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/ Flickr

While most media attention focuses on people and developed areas, storms also have an impact on wildlife habitat. I decided to look into what happens after a storm has hit, specifically in regards to wildlife habitat restoration and reforestation. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Hurricane Katrina caused damage to five million acres of land, which included coastal forests that many migratory bird species and other wildlife species called home. According to a 2007 study, more than 320 million trees were killed. Further inland from the coast, 50 to 80 percent of Mississippi’s trees were damaged. This has a great impact on wildlife food and shelter. While it’s easy to see that heavy rain and strong winds knock trees over, they also strip vital food sources like seeds and berries from trees.

But damage isn’t just limited to dry forests. Storms like Katrina also have a high impact on wetland habitat by increasing water levels and changing the salinity of the water. James Harris, a biologist at the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, told the National Wildlife Federation that the rainfall from Hurricane Katrina forced salt water into freshwater marshes, which eventually killed trees and severely reduced waterfowl food sources, like fish.

The Great Blue Heron is one of several bird populations impacted by Gulf Coast storms. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/ Flickr

Another concern for wildlife managers is the likelihood of a species leaving the area and not returning once the storm is over. Tommy Michot, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who conducts aerial canvases of Louisiana birds, noted the decline of 10 coastal bird species after Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita. Since storms greatly disturb wildlife habitat, it’s important that these areas are restored afterwards. It certainly is reassuring to know that there are several programs in place like the Hurricane Wildlife Relief Fund, the Emergency Watershed Protection program and American Forests Global ReLeaf to help restore our wetlands and coastal forests.

Curious to learn more about how different natural disasters affect forest ecosystems? The Autumn 2012 issue of American Forests magazine contains a feature on how floods, hurricanes, ice storms and more impact forests. Become a member of American Forests today to secure your copy of our autumn magazine, which will arrive in October.