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The Return of Indiana Dave

October 6, 2010

Indiana Dave and the Hurricanes at Fort Jackson.

It was hot. Really hot in southern Louisiana in August.

The heat index read 115. I had to bring a lot of bottled water with me on this journey to stay hydrated and cool.

And I also had to watch my toes. I was always fearful that I'd lose one of them to an alligator that got cranky in the heat - or  worse - hungry.

But I wouldn't have missed this experience for the world.

Let me start with a little history.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States and the sixth strongest hurricane overall. Economically, it was recorded as the most destructive storm in history, totaling $60 billion in insured losses, including flood damage.

So it's not too hard to believe that in addition to the costly damage done to properties across the Gulf Coast that many trees also suffered during the fierce storm.

One site that endured particular damage was Fort Jackson, a National Historic Landmark located 70 miles south of New Orleans and 32 nautical miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The fort was named after the seventh U.S. president Andrew Jackson, was built between 1822 and 1832 as a coastal defense for New Orleans during the Civil War.

Between Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and Hurricane Rita the following month, much of the fort sat under water for up to six weeks. Many of the historic exhibits were destroyed and the fort itself suffered serious structural damage.

Fort Jackson

The Davey Tree Expert Co., The Care of Trees and Wolf Tree Inc., have worked together to help restore the property this year.

And, as I witnessed, the job was a tough one. The team pruned 173 trees, removed 64 dead or hazardous trees, grinded wood debris into mulch and placed the mulch over the tree's critical root zones to improve moisture retention and soil structure. Some of the damaged trees on the site were more than 100 years old.

Fort Jackson 002

But because the site was surrounded by a moat and held great archeological significance, extreme and atypical measures had to be taken to avoid damage. Minimal equipment was permitted on site. Aerial lifts and a 35-ton crane were used to work only on the perimeters of the property. To remove trees, crews used technical rigging and speed line techniques to avoid historically significant architectural obstacles.

"The bridge going over the moat couldn't support certain equipment so our normal bucket trucks and aerial lifts weren't always able to be used," explains Tom Wolf, President of Wolf Tree, a Davey Co. "So our team zip-lined a lot of material like tree sections up to 3 feet in diameter using ropes and pulleys."

There was also extreme concern over protecting the root systems of the trees. And since some archeological teams were doing actual historic digs on the site while the crews were working, "we could not drive trucks on the site or disturb the grounds," Wolf says.

On top of these challenges, as I mentioned before, the heat index was between 115 to 120 degrees during the months of July and August when crews were on site meaning crewmembers had to use backpack hydration systems to avoid heat exhaustion. "Sipping water continually like this helped a lot during these 100 degree-plus heat index days," Wolf says.

Fort Jackson 003

And the site's resident alligator, which has no name, watching the crews perform from its cool resting place in the moat just made me nervous. Though I have to say I got rather used to his presence.

The timing of the job also brought an additional and unexpected experience for the crews. The Gulf oil spill happened only 70 miles away from the job site. This meant a lot of emergency management professionals took up the local available lodging. So our tree crews stayed at a fishing camp near the area.

This one was truly an adventure, folks. I got to see the extreme damage a hurricane could cause. Then I watched in amazement as my arborist friends restored the site … branch by branch. I have to say after seeing this transformation, I believe anything is possible.

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