Irma, the Unsolicited Landscape Designer

Homeowners go to great lengths and expense to harness nature and control their environments in order to create their own versions of paradise in the form of landscape gardening. These efforts may include grading, building retaining walls, terracing, hardscaping, designing planting beds, installing shrubs and trees, trimming tree limbs, or removing trees altogether. It can take months or even years to alter the property and establish the desired effect . . . or, nature can make the decision to completely change it all in a matter of minutes. Such was the case in our front yard in September, 2017, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.

Georgia is a state that experiences extreme weather conditions, from sub-zero temperatures in the mountainous regions to weeks of mid-day temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the southern and coastal areas. A soaking wet spring and summer may easily be followed by six years of very little rainfall at all. Dry conditions can lead to horrible wildfires, especially in south Georgia, while heavy rainfall frequently brings flash floods to the streams and rivers that carve through the hills of the Piedmont region. The influx of warm, wet air from the Gulf creates an unstable atmosphere over the state that results in severe electrical storms, strong winds, and heavy downpours, even if this activity is isolated. In the late spring and early summer, tornados are an ever-present threat. The greatest risk of widespread destruction comes in late summer and early fall — hurricane season. Catastrophic hurricane damage in the state is rare and limited to the coast for Atlantic storms and southwest Georgia for storms that come into the panhandle of Florida from the Gulf.

As is always the case with hurricanes, wind is typically a secondary problem to the primary issue of either storm surge or torrential rains and flooding. On rare occasions, high winds and rain from hurricanes come together in a deadly combination that inland forested areas are not able to withstand. Such was the case with Hurricane Irma. With the strongest winds ever recorded of any storm in the open Atlantic, Irma caused incredible damage in the Caribbean then crossed the Straits of Florida to eventually make landfall on September 10 in the Keys with sustained winds at 130 mph before swirling up the west coast of Florida towards Alabama. This was a huge hurricane with outer bands that spread out over several states at once: Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. The outer bands on the east side of the storm ended up causing the most damage to inland areas, such as the mountains of northeast Georgia where we live. In fact, we heard reports in the weeks that followed the storm that our county suffered more damage from Irma than any other in the state outside the coastal counties.

The worst weather from the outer bands hit our county between 5:00 p.m. and midnight on September 11. The wind began to pick up that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Within an hour we were hearing the characteristic howling of the gusts as they came through in waves. The electricity went off at about 4:30 p.m. Over the next three hours the wind continued to build in intensity and the gusts were almost becoming sustained. We were most concerned about the large oaks closest to our house, located in the front yard in a landscaped “island” of mulch planted with an understory of shrubs and perennials. Every few minutes we would walk to the front windows and shine our flashlights out toward the trees to check on them. At about 8:00 p.m., we noticed that one of the oaks was starting to lean with the force of the wind, and the ground around the trunk was beginning to bulge as the roots were being pulled toward the surface. It was a frightening spectacle. By 8:15 p.m., two of the trees were uprooted and fell across the front yard, completely missing the house. We were sad to lose the trees but thankful the house was spared. The wind got stronger, and then it got dark. Not being able to see out the windows to tell how far the wind was bending the trees in the forest surrounding us was quite disconcerting.

First trees fallen
First trees fallen

Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a loud crash and felt the whole house shudder. We knew we had lost another tree, but this time, it fell on the house. I sprinted upstairs to look for holes in the ceiling or broken windows in the front dormers. I was greatly relieved to find that the roof had apparently not been breached, but all I could see out of the front second-story windows were the leaves and branches of the tree’s canopy resting against the roof over the front porch. Then I heard my wife shouting from downstairs, “The tree is in the house!” I rushed back down to find her at our open front door in a desperate struggle against tree branches that looked like a horticultural monster invading our foyer. A portion of the tree canopy had spilled onto the front porch, and when my wife opened the front door, the bent limbs sprang inside and almost knocked her down. It was like a scene out of Jumanji.

Downed trees on the house
Downed trees on the house

We managed to push the limbs back outside and close the door, realizing in the process that two trees had actually fallen on the house, for a total of four lost trees. Each of these oaks was over thirty feet tall with combined canopies covering an area over 1,000 square feet. The fallen trees caused damage to the porch, roof, and brick walkway, and completely demolished a light post. The destruction could have been much worse in that regard, as it was for so many people in our part of the state. The downed trees were removed two days later by a local tree company with some of the fastest and most efficient workers I have ever seen. Within a few weeks all the damage to the house was repaired as well. What Hurricane Irma left behind for us, however, was a completely altered landscape for our front yard and gardens. What had been a sheltered area for shrubs and shade-loving annuals and perennials was now exposed to full sun.

Post-storm island
Post-storm island

After our contractor removed the stumps and most of the roots of the extracted trees and smoothed over the scars in the ground, we brought in a fresh load of mulch to dress the area and replanted the under-story plants that had been temporarily removed to a safe location at the edge of the yard. The existing dogwood and redbud trees under the big oaks came out remarkably unharmed. Surprisingly enough, when the trees fell they completely missed our two large (and expensive) planters, and they only slightly injured the smaller plants in the island. We did purchase some ornamental grasses to fill in some of the new space, and we transplanted a red-blooming crepe myrtle from the backyard where it had been under-performing due to lack of sunlight.

Island in bloom for spring
Island in bloom for spring

For the 2018 season, we had to totally rethink our flower beds at the front porch. In the past, these beds were filled with impatiens, caladiums, coleus, and other shade-loving annuals. We switched to impatiens, Mexican heather, begonias, zinnias, and other annuals and perennials that enjoy morning and early afternoon sun. These beds were beautiful before, and as we learn more about what will thrive there with the new conditions, they will be just as handsome. Where we once depended more on foliage than blooms for color, now we have just the opposite situation. I wouldn’t say they look better, just different. I must admit, in the days following the storm I was a bit worried about how our front yard gardens were going to suffer with the loss of the trees. I think we are comfortably acclimated to the new look now. It’s going to be just fine. One thing I know for certain. I will not miss for a second spending hours of time in the late fall picking up large acorns before they have the chance to burrow and sprout. For that little gift from Irma, I am quite grateful.

Sunny front flower beds
Sunny front flower beds

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