families for generations, and is a linchpin of rural Florida culture. The Florida Panhandle is home to some of the state’s most robust timberlands, but after Hurricane Michael leveled millions of acres of trees, many producers and workers were left to pick up the pieces and wonder if they are ready for this year’s hurricane season.
As Hurricane Michael barreled toward the Florida panhandle on October 10, Jim Browne felt safe inside the small cabin on his 400-acre property in the northern part of Calhoun county.
“We’d always heard from our neighbors that have been here forever saying, you know, this is where people evacuate to,” Browne said. “We felt fairly comfortable being 60 miles inland.”
Browne was in the cabin with his wife and mother when the storm hit, and he quickly realized they were not as safe in the boarded-up house as he had hoped.
“It was four hours of sustained terror,” he said.
The winds from Michael were so strong that the walls began to buckle on the east side of the house. About 15 minutes into the storm, an aluminum sheet ripped off a nearby walkway, leaving three holes in the metal roof above their heads. The metal flapped violently, mixing with the characteristic freight-train sound of the hurling hurricane winds.
Browne moved to the property in 2015 with his wife after 27 years as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force. He and his wife called it their retirement project, and they had planned to break ground on their new home just a week before the storm hit.
“Having been a fighter pilot, nearly a third of my career was in fighters in combat,” Browne said. “I’ve been shot at, I’ve dropped bombs, I’ve done all that stuff, but I’ve never been so frightened as I was during those hours of that storm. You just didn’t have any control at all. It was terrible.”
The three came out of the storm unharmed. Roads were blocked by downed trees, multiple buildings were damaged and the power was out for three weeks. But the damage to the trees on Browne’s property was the worst part.
“The most painful thing for us was to see the woods go from how beautiful they were to just ravaged,” he said.
The property serves as both timberlands and a wildlife conservation area. The 90 acres of longleaf pine trees planted in 2017 survived, but many of the half-century-old oaks and loblollies were destroyed as well as 70 acres of slash pine.
In total, the couple sustained about $225,000 in damage, and that doesn’t include the potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for cleanup.
“Timber is an uninsurable crop,” Browne said. “What’s unique about timber is that it’s a generational crop. It takes 30 years to mature and replant. So to insure something for that length of period, you’d never get your money back.”
Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, said many people are calling Hurricane Michael “the forgotten storm” both because it impacted rural communities and because Congress only recently passed a disaster aid bill to assist farmers, ranchers and producers who were impacted by the storm.
“It is probably the single biggest natural impact to the forest industry in this country ever.”
The $19.1 billion bill, passed 237 days after Hurricane Michael made landfall, is expected to earmark nearly half a billion dollars to help Florida timber growers.
The impacts of Michael to the timber industry in the Florida Panhandle were especially harsh. Immediately after the storm, the Florida Forest Service deployed about 600 people on the ground in the areas impacted to clear roads and assess damage to valuable timber lands.
They estimated a loss of $1.3 billion in forest assets and approximately 72 million tons of downed trees spread out over 2.8 million acres, impacting 16,000 forest owners.
“I’ve been to the impacts of Andrew, Hugo, Katrina, Ivan, Opal, you name it, in the Panhandle and all over the Southeast,” Karels said. “I’ve never seen the devastation of this storm. It is probably the single biggest natural impact to the forest industry in this country ever.”
Florida timberlands cover about half of the state’s land area, with the majority of Florida’s forests falling north of Orlando. Of the 37.5 million acres of land in Florida, more than 17.2 million acres are forests, according to the Florida Forestry Association. The majority of those lands are owned by private landowners.
Florida’s timber industry generates over $25.1 billion in revenue a year and employs 124,104 people, according to the Florida Forest Service. That’s a larger economic contribution than any other single agricultural commodity in the state.
Hurricane Michael’s hit to the timber industry in Florida and Georgia trickles down into the communities surrounding damaged areas, many of which depend on timber as a primary economic driver.
“In five of those 11 counties [impacted by the storm], forest products are the number one industry, and in the other counties, forest products are either two or three in every one of them,” Karels said.
The massive damage to millions of acres of forest after the hurricane has resulted in more than economic consequences. A particularly worrying one: the threat of wildfire.
Some areas of the Panhandle have over 100 tons of wood on the ground per acre, Karels said, and in those areas, trees are often thrown about in many directions, stripped down and broken.
“Our heavy equipment trying to go into those areas and fight fires, it’s almost impossible to punch through some of that,” Karels said. “It makes it very dangerous for the firefighters, and it makes it very dangerous for the communities in the area because of the fire threat. We estimate about 233 communities today are at a high-elevated risk of wildfire through this area.”
To open up the market for private landowners who depend on timber sales, the Florida Forest Service shut down logging on their own properties adjacent to the impacted area. They focused instead on salvage operations, cleaning up private lands and using as much downed wood as possible while it still had value.
“Our goal there was to concentrate on the impacted area, and the idea was to concentrate on the private lands,” he said.
Caroline Dauzat, one of the owners of Rex Lumber, knew processing the massive amounts of salvaged wood in the wake of Hurricane Michael was an impossible task. 72 million tons.
Dauzat put it in perspective: the two mills Rex Lumber operates in Florida can only process combined about 1.7 million tons annually.
“We’ve been trying to run as much as we can just to consume as much of the salvaged wood as we can,” she said.
But the wood has gotten so degraded that, at this point, the mill is only accepting salvaged wood on a case-by-case basis.
“If you put that in a saw mill, it basically just kind of blows up because it’s so dried out, and it messes up your equipment,” she said. Dauzat said the company is accepting very little salvaged wood at this point, “if any at all.”
“There’s no saving the timber when something like that happens.”
Rex Lumber operates saw mills in Graceville and Bristol, Florida, as well as Brookhaven, Mississippi. They also have a new mill in Troy, Alabama, that started operating in June.
The company was started by Dauzat’s great grandfather in the 1920s, and her family has been in the sawmill business for the past 100 years.
When the Troy mill is fully operational, Rex will employ over 600 people, and produce 800 million board feet annually. They sell as far north as Maine, as far south as the Caribbean and as far west as Texas. They also own about 14,000 acres of timberlands in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
When Hurricane Michael hit, like many others in the area, they were caught off guard. The hurricane’s trajectory passed right between Rex Lumber’s two Florida mills, with the Bristol mill sustaining the most damage as it was on the east side of the storm.
“Thankfully both our mills had superficial damage as far as no equipment was displaced or tossed,” Dauzat said. “It was basically the skins on buildings and roofs on buildings, and all that is easily repairable and doesn’t hinder you from getting back to operation.”
But supporting the hundreds of employees who work at the mills was another story. Many of their employees did not evacuate and were left to pick up the pieces after the storm with a slow emergency response.
Rex Lumber sent out teams to help clear out houses and chainsaw downed trees for the first three weeks. The company bought about 70 generators and passed them out to employees to help facilitate some sense of normalcy.
Dauzat said it has been a big hit, both from the over a million dollars in repairs and the struggle to help her employees recover.
The company worked hard to install wet decks–a long-term storage option where logs are stored underwater from eight months to two years, depending on the size of the log–in their mills to help manage the excess amount of salvaged wood, but they weren’t able to get them up and running fast enough.
For this coming hurricane season, the wet decks could help make managing salvaged wood a bit easier if a hurricane hits the region again. Long term, the wet decks will allow the company to purchase and store timber for long periods with the hope of feeding a steady supply of timber to the sawmill.
The company has made other minor adjustments to prepare for this year’s hurricane season as well, but they are at the mercy of nature when it comes to the preservation of the resource that powers their mills.
“There’s no saving the timber when something like that happens,” Dauzat said. She added that replanting pine trees, especially slash and loblolly, is vital to the industry, and she hopes the recent disaster bill will provide some incentive for landowners to do so.
Private landowner Jim Browne also said he’s more aware of his vulnerability to the elements during this year’s hurricane season. He and his wife bought a second generator, but the biggest change they’ll make this year is that they plan to evacuate as soon as a Category 3 or larger storm heads their way.
“I don’t think we could stand to live through another storm of that fierceness and be sane when it’s over,” he said.
For Jim Karels and the Forest Service, hardly anything has changed. Eight months later, and the cleanup crews are still hard at work as this year’s hurricane season gets underway.
“The difference with Michael is we never left,” Karels said. “We’re still there.”
Thank you to Jim Browne, Caroline Dauzat, Jim Karels and the Florida Forest Service for use of photos and images for this story.
Twenty-one percent of Panama City residents live below the poverty line. Many rely on federal housing subsidies to help with rent, but funding for affordable housing programs is limited. Hurricane Michael exacerbated the housing shortage. After the storm, displaced hurricane survivors with little resources were left navigating federal aid options, searching for scarce homes all while trying to find a sense of normalcy.
Take a look outside. What do you see? For residents of the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael, it was complete and utter devastation. Photos of leveled homes, smashed businesses, flooded streets and forests laid to waste made their way through news outlets, across social media, and in texts and emails to loved ones. But what was less obvious was how the destruction set the stage for a new landscape: a landscape defined by invasive species.