Tree preservation plan helped campus landscaping survive Hurricane Irma

FIU is on its way to making a full recovery following Hurricane Irma, starting with reviving the beauty of campus landscaping and greenery.

All ground debris had been removed from campus in time to reopen Monday. Sept. 18. The debris will be sent for mulching, per university policy.

Cleanup crews have already removed all ground debris and have righted many felled or leaning trees in an attempt to save them. Two ficus trees that have stood between Primera Casa and Deuxième Maison for decades were felled by the storm, but have been since righted; and the university’s arborist is confident they, along with many of the other downed trees, will survive.

Year-round pruning and regular care of its trees helped FIU’s canopy weather the storm with a minimal level of damage during the storm. 

“There is no such thing as hurricane-proof landscaping, but with a strong knowledge of tree species, proper tree care and a long-term vision, trees can be more resistant to storm damage,” said Mark Salemi, FIU’s senior grounds superintendent and certified arborist. “Although MMC, BBC and the Engineering Center suffered damage, it was in no way devastating.”

Damage to landscape at BBC included felled or broken trees and some flooding. Ground debris had been cleared in time for students’ return Monday, Sept. 18.

Since 2010, FIU has been designated a Tree Campus USA by the national Arbor Day Foundation. The recognition reflects the university’s commitment to effectively managing campus trees and connecting students and the FIU community to the environment through service-learning opportunities both on and off campus.

FIU follows a tree preservation plan that includes employing a certified arborist to ensure proper tree care. Having a certified arborist ensures the people caring for campus trees are educated and certified in planting, root systems, pruning and assessing the safety of trees. Regular pruning helps create a sturdy framework of healthy branches with an open canopy that allows wind to flow through freely through campus trees, helping minimize storm damage.

Two ficus trees which have stood between PC and DM for decades were felled by the hurricane, but have been righted by cleanup crews. The university’s arborist is confident that these, along with many other trees that fell, will survive.

“We view proper tree care as an investment, whereas poorly maintained trees can be a significant liability,” Salemi said. “We absolutely believe FIU fared significantly better because of our tree preservation plan.”

Before the hurricane made landfall, the university’s disaster management team ensured contractors were on hand and ready to mobilize for cleanup post-storm. These preparations helped FIU to open and welcome students safely to campus on Sept. 18.

Reviving nature preserve could take time

FIU’s nature preserve is home to 266 plant species, 15 of which are threatened and 12 of which are endangered in the state of Florida. The preserve is also home to three distinct habitats, including the critically endangered pine rocklands, of which there is only 2 percent remaining in the world. Though the nature preserve suffered canopy loss, the Florida-native pine rockland habitat “held up remarkably” – none of the trees in the habitat fell – according to FIU’s Office of University Sustainability, which is handling damage assessment and cleanup of the preserve.

The nature preserve at MMC is closed to the public until further notice due to safety concerns. Office of University Sustainability employees, who oversee the preserve, are currently working to assess damage and contract professional remediation crews.

“The ecosystems within the nature preserve are native to South Florida and have been surviving hurricanes for thousands of years,” said Alexandra Dutton, a program manager in the Office of University Sustainability. “Even though many trees and branches have been lost, we will see other species thrive due to their increased access to sunlight, rain, and other nutrients. Nature is resilient and even in destructive circumstances will find a way to bounce back.”

Due to ongoing safety concerns, the nature preserve is closed to the public until further notice. Office of Sustainability employees are working to clear debris around the preserve’s perimeter, including the pollinator gardens planted earlier this year. But all volunteering opportunities and other events have been postponed until professional remediation crews clear the area, as broken and fallen limbs within the preserve still present a serious danger.

Though branches and debris fell on the organic garden, the organic matter below the tarps suffered no damage. Classes that tend to the garden are looking forward to resuming their normal activities.

“We greatly appreciate everyone who has reached out to us wanting to help clean up and we look forward to resuming volunteer activities as soon as the area is safe,” said Connie Caldwell of the Office of University Sustainability.

The organic garden and shed adjacent to the preserve suffered no damage. Agroecology Professor Krishnaswamy Jayachandran, whose class maintains the garden, said the tarps they used to protect the garden were still in tact when he surveyed the area Thursday, Sept. 14. He’s looking forward to getting his students back outside for their regularly scheduled activities as soon as possible.

“Our class will be there doing anything small that needs to be done, but amazingly there is nothing big in terms of cleanup,” Jayachandran said.