Andy Walker of US Forest Service discusses a failed road and culvert that remains impassable this summer in the Croatan National Forest following storm damage from Hurricane Florence last year.

Nearly one year after Hurricane Florence pummeled North Carolina’s central coast, Croatan National Forest is still recovering from an estimated $17 million in damage to the forest’s infrastructure and costs to respond to the storm.

The storm inflicted widespread damage to the national forest as well as to nearby coastal communities like New Bern.

However, the Croatan’s native and restored longleaf forests were relatively unscathed by the Category 1 hurricane’s 100 mph winds and, in some locations, more than 2 feet of rain.

“What failed were all of the man-made things, but the forest’s ecosystem is in good shape,” said Ron Hudson, Croatan National Forest district ranger.

Much of the damage was to roads, which were impassable due to fallen trees and culverts blown out by rushing water. Immediately after the storm, 80 of the Croatan’s 200 miles of access roads were closed. This summer, 19 miles of those roadways remain closed.

“The lesson for me is that when we replace culverts, roads, fire lines and trails, we have to build them so they’ll withstand future storms,” Hudson said. “We have to stop and think about how we upgrade our infrastructure and design something that will last.”

One of four national forests in North Carolina, the 160,000-acre forest south of New Bern is bordered by the Neuse and White Oak rivers and Bogue Sound on the Atlantic Ocean along its southern boundary. The Croatan’s inland landscape includes native and restored longleaf pine habitat, saltwater estuaries, Carolina bays and raised swamps known as pocosins.

Hurricane Florence made landfall Sept. 14, 2018, then followed a slow path inland that unleashed a torrent of rain in areas along the central coast. Recorded rainfall near Croatan National Forest included 17 inches in New Bern, 25 inches in Newport and 33 inches in Swansboro.

In addition, the storm’s runoff poured into the Trent, White Oak and Neuse rivers. Combined with the tidal surge, that runoff inundated low-lying regions of the forest.

In the aftermath of the storm, the Forest Service’s initial response, Hudson said, was to evaluate damage, clear trees, open roads and trails, and reestablish fire breaks throughout the forest.

In June, President Donald Trump signed a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill to fund recovery in areas impacted by hurricanes, wildfires and flooding. Hudson expects those recovery funds to be available in the next federal fiscal year, which begins in October.

Shoreline damage at Flanners Beach along the Neuse River in the Croatan National Forest. The bank was damaged causing trees to fall. The area remains closed to the public. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Facilities among hardest-hit areas of Croatan

The area of the Croatan that experienced the largest impact was along the forest’s northeastern boundary in units along the Neuse River. The Neuse is a 250-mile-long river that flows from the Piedmont into Pamlico Sound.

While much of the interior of the Croatan is remote and difficult to access, the heavily used recreational components of the forest along the Neuse River were crippled, including three recreation areas that have campgrounds and beaches that remain closed.

Among the hardest-hit areas was the beach and a retaining wall at Flanners Beach in the Neuse River Recreation Area, which was destroyed by waves and wind that battered the shoreline during the storm.

“We are working really hard to get the campgrounds and beaches up and running,” Hudson said. But he added that “the number one priority right now is public safety.”

The popular fee areas are also a source of funds the Forest Service relies on to maintain campground facilities.

Also impacted by the storm is an 18-mile portion of the 21-mile Neusiok Trail, a segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which remains closed until Forest Service fire crews can remove damaged trees.

Gene Huntsman, a retired ichthyologist, helped carve the first mile of the Neusiok Trail in 1973 and remains active in stewarding the footpath. Much of the trail, he said, is maintained by volunteer groups, including the Carteret County Wildlife Club and other recreational organizations in collaboration with the Forest Service.

“The trail got mommicked,” Huntsman said. “It is so jungly down here that when a tree comes down, you don’t just get a tree, you get all of the vines and stuff that come with it. It took many people many hours of chain sawing, clipping and hauling to clear the trail.”

In addition to downed trees, many of the trail’s footbridges were damaged or swept out of position during the storm.

The hardest-hit portions of the trail, he said, were along the Neuse. “That part of the trail caught holy hell,” Huntsman said.

“Every time we have a hurricane, the shoreline moves backward.”

Hudson said that the national forest will bring in a team of experts to build more resilient infrastructure and trails in storm-prone areas of the forest. Evidence of storm-adapted design, he said, is the Tideland National Recreation Trail along the White Oak River, which had minimal damage in spite of extreme flooding.

Huntsman, however, is skeptical that designing a hurricane-proof trail is attainable.

“We’ve been working on this trail for 50 odd years. The (Forest Service) can bring in all of the experts they want, but they aren’t going to discover something new,” he said.

A longleaf pine in the grass stage of development in the Croatan National Forest. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Longleaf pine resilience

As effective as Florence may have been in battering human-made elements of the forest, portions of the Croatan’s ecosystem rely on natural disturbances, such as wind and wildfire, to thrive.

Croatan National Forest botanist Andy Walker said damage to the forest’s ecosystems was mostly in isolated hardwood forests, typically along streams and rivers, and in areas dominated by loblolly pine and other pine species.

“The further you get from the natural state of the landscape, the more beat up the forests,” Walker said.

Portions of the forest affected least, Walker said, were native longleaf pine ecosystems in their “desired condition,” which means longleaf landscapes that have been restored to their natural composition, structure and pattern. A healthy longleaf forest is relatively open and roomy, its understory carpeted with highly flammable grasses.

Mature longleaf trees also have a uniform height and a deep root system that increase their tolerance to damage from heavy winds typical in hurricane country. Evidence of the longleaf’s hardiness is its resilience after Florence.

Land managers throughout North Carolina’s coastal plain, including the Forest Service, have made a focused effort to restore the threatened native longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat that, in its heyday, swept across 90 million acres of the Southeastern coastal plain from Virginia to east Texas. In all, the Forest Service estimates that 15,000 of the original 60,000 acres of longleaf in the Croatan have been restored.

But for a longleaf forest to remain open, regular fire is a must.

For thousands of years, fires caused by lightning strikes and carried by wiregrass across the landscape maintained its complex ecological design. Currently, Croatan National Forest has implemented a combination of prescribed fires and other timber management techniques, such as thinnings, to reestablish healthy sections of longleaf pine habitat.

That aim is in sharp contrast to past management choices in which forest managers prioritized timber production over habitat restoration and replaced thousands of acres of longleaf with rows of more economically productive loblolly pine, which foresters protected from fire.

“Once you remove fire and interrupt its natural cycle, loblolly pine and other more tenacious species that aren’t as resilient to big storms will naturally come in,” Walker said.

Diverted resources

One of the direct impacts on forest management from Hurricane Florence was that Forest Service resources have been diverted from managed fire.

Since the hurricane, the Forest Service has not conducted any prescribed burns. Staff members hope to resume burning once damaged roads and firelines have been restored this fall.

According to Hudson, the Forest Service targets managed burns in a single location of the Croatan every two to five years to match the natural cycle of fire. The annual goal is to burn roughly 15,000 to 20,000 acres.

How a fire burns depends on a range of factors, such as wind, humidity, topography and fuel load. A forest understory that’s too thick, for example, can stoke flames that burn longer and hotter and can damage longleaf pines or burn out precious species.

Managing fire and smoke also become more difficult and costly, and may produce health and safety concerns in nearby communities.

Hudson and Walker agree that missing one season of fire is manageable, but they are concerned about other future threats that can slow the progress of regular burns, such as funding, increasing development in areas bordering the forest and future large storms with damage on the scale of Florence.

“Once we fall behind on burning, it makes it that much harder to get caught up. If we get too far behind, the effects could be felt for years. The heavier the fuel load, the more difficult and costly each successive burn,” Walker said.

A patch of pitcher plants in the Croatan National Forest. The carnivorous plant grows in wet sections of longleaf forests. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Croatan species vulnerability and resiliency

Among the species particularly sensitive to fire is the federally endangered red cockaded woodpecker, which builds cavities in mature, living pines that are 80-100 years old.

“They are an indicator species for a healthy longleaf ecosystem,” said Hugo Cobos, Croatan National Forest wildlife biologist.

He said a woodpecker will drill a small cavity in a cluster of trees for its brood to roost in at night. When the family vacates, owls, squirrels, bluebirds and other creatures eventually move in.

As a defense mechanism, the woodpecker flecks off the bark surrounding its roost, exposing a sticky resin that shields it from predators. The substance, however, is flammable.

“Historically, the fires didn’t reach high enough, but without managing the fire load, it’s a different story,” Cobos said.

“If the understory gets too high, a wildfire will burn them out.”

Since woodpeckers choose aging trees that are often hollowed out by disease, the trees are prone to damage caused by high winds. Throughout the forest, 150 trees with woodpecker cavities were snapped in two or damaged by the storm, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the forest’s confirmed woodpecker nests.

To make up for the lost nests, the Forest Service drilled cavities in trees and installed 116 inserts developed by the N.C. Division of Wildlife that resemble a natural cavity.

Despite the damage, Cobos said, the woodpecker population is stable and evidence of the resilience of nature.

In fact, some rare species in the Croatan, Walker said, may not only have survived the storm but also are thriving because of it, such as the Carolina gopher frog, which requires fishless bodies of water to breed that were in abundance in the wake of the storm.

Another example is the well-known bug-eating Venus flytrap, whose range is limited to just a few portions of the Carolinas and flourishes in open longleaf ecosystems.

“Their seeds are like little tiny cannonballs that are dispersed by raindrops and may have been carried by floods,” Walker said. “We may find flytraps in places we haven’t found them before.”

US Forest Service botanist Andy Walker counts the rings of a fallen longleaf pine this summer in the Croatan National Forest. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

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