Trees: the Last Great Cost of the 2009 Ice Storm

Ivan Potter

Along the Mississippi River, in the forest lands of four counties, 28 million trees were damaged by the 2009 Ice Storm. This loss of trees, timber, and forest will approach a total figure of just over 8.6 billion dollars.  Every tree in these counties was impacted by the weight of the ice, with most damage occurring in the top 20 percent of its mass.

Forest Land

 According to Kentucky Division of Forestry, the sizes of forest lands in the River Counties are: (1) Ballard with 31,272 acres (2) Carlisle County with 29,210 acres (3) Hickman County with 23,153 acres and (4) Fulton County with 12,433 acres. This comes to a total of 96,068 acres of forest lands in the four river counties.

In estimates from the Kentucky forest experts, a typical acre of rough forest land will contain 450 to 600 trees. For the purposes of this article, a smaller figure of 300 trees per acre will be the foundation for all calculations. This will account for removing the smaller 1 in to 2 in size trees from the calculations on tree values.  By multiplying the number of average trees per acre (300) times the number of total acres of forest lands (96,068), a grand figure of 28,820,400 trees is reached.

In talking with the local UK extension agents and Kentucky Division of Forestry staff, there seems to be agreement that a value of a single tree is based upon two primary factors: (1) timber market pricing and (2) aesthetic landscaping merit. This article will also include a third factor for determining the value of a tree. This will be the new 21st century factor for estimating trees and forest value based upon carbon recycling volume.

According to local timber professionals, the current timber market is “upside down”. Before the Ice Storm, the most valuable part of a tree for timber market value was the area three feet from the bottom to a point some 12 to 16 feet higher up the tree. Now, money is best for the smaller, higher levels of the tree for use as cross ties.

Tree Damage and Loss

To be very conservative in assigning a “loss” figure per tree, a calculation of timber market value was assigned a loss figure of $ 100 average per damaged tree. A similar rationale was used to assign a loss figure of $ 100 average per damaged tree for aesthetic value. There exists very little data on how to determine the carbon recycling value of each tree, a loss figure of $ 100 was applied to each damaged tree. Therefore, a value of $300 per damaged tree was used for the purpose of determining actual monetary loss from the Ice Storm.

 The result of all this calculations is that a figure of $ 8,646,120,000 ( $ 8.6 Billion) is a conservative estimate of lost timber, aesthetic, and carbon recycling value of trees in the River Counties.

Recovery Cost

At the April Hickman County Fiscal Court meeting, Judge Executive Gregg Pruitt informed the court on the status of Ice Storm recovery. “As of April 1, 2009, the Kentucky State approved contractor reported that 124,286 cubic yards of wood debris had been removed from the county roads. This represents about 15 % of the total volume to be cleared over the next nine months.”

In the same meeting, a figure of $4.76 per cubic yard was defined as the cost for the contractor to remove the debris. It is expected that some 800,000 cubic yards will be the total recovery volume of debris for Hickman County. This will result in a payment of $3,808,000 by Kentucky State Government. The federal government will cover 75% of this figure, with the county and cities of Hickman County being responsible for the rest.

Each contractor’s truck holds 100 cubic yards. They run from dawn to dusk. An average day will see 10 trucks making 10 trips to the drop point just east of Clinton, at the Industrial Park. Each month, the mountain of debris grows at a rate of 200,000 cubic yards.

Mega Storms

In recorded history, there have been two mega natural disasters to strike the four Kentucky Mississippi River counties: (1) 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquake and (2) 2009 Great Ice Storm. If the great quake was to strike today, St. Louis and Memphis would be devastated as well as all the lands in between. The earthquake was a natural disaster based in the principles of geology, when great tectonic plates of the earths crust move against each other. Odds are this type of great disaster will be rare for the future.

However, the Great Ice Storm of 2009 is a more recent natural phenomenon and could occur again next year. This ice storm was preceded by the Great Ice Storm of 2008 that struck just to our east, along the lakes and into the West Kentucky Parkway. This was same type of storm with same type of broad regional tree damage.

Within the past three years, other great extreme weather events included (1) micro-wind burst that destroyed five buildings of downtown Clinton (2) Hurricane Ike (3) Heat storm with two weeks of over 100 degrees, five days of over 110 degrees (4) floods (5) 8 inch snow storm at Christmas, and (6) three tornadoes near misses to the county seats of the river counties.   

The Future

The balance of nature is tilting in our back yard. The citizens of the Mississippi River Counties are uniquely located at the juncture of vast cold and heat systems fed by extreme moisture coming up from the south meeting cold air coming down from the north. Our climate is changing. Weather is going more extreme for us in this part of the world.

With 100 year old brick buildings dominating our commercial areas, out of date housing for combating extreme heat and cold, communications grids held hostage by 100 year old planning, transportation in and out of narrow roads and easily flooded valleys, the people of the river counties stand at the edge of a new era in man and nature relationship, in which man has the weaker and more exposed position.  

Mother Nature always wins the climate-weather battle. The question is “How prepared are we for the next battle with her?”