Arboretum among most affected areas on campus weeks after Hurricane Irma

The aftermath of Hurricane Irma's path through Florida left the University of Miami's arboretum, the home of many exotic tree species, devastated. Remnants of the trees and shrubs featured in the garden were seen relocated to behind the arboretum waiting to be discarded. Photo credit: Matt Bernanke

Hurricane Irma left campus greenery with broken limbs, leaning trunks and uprooted trees. However, not all the damage in the John C. Gifford Arboretum was natural. Many healthy plants were needlessly chopped in the storm’s aftermath to expedite the cleanup of fallen trees.

Arboretum Director Steve Pearson said the university made an effort to clear campus as quickly as possible after Irma for accessibility and safety reasons, at the expense of trees that didn’t need to be cut down. Pearson said one of the main problems was a lack of communication with facilities workers, but he was also barred from returning to campus after the storm.

“I had to fight to get back into the arboretum,” he said.

Although wind speeds were lower than they could have been during the powerful hurricane and buildings received minimal damage, the sheer number of hours that trees had to endure Irma’s winds devastated many plant species. The trees in the arboretum are generally much more sensitive to stress than the hardier landscaping on the rest of campus, so the area was particularly devastated.

Pearson said Hurricane Irma did “terrible damage” to the arboretum, killing about 15 species and damaging countless others. The arboretum features hundreds of tree and shrub species from every continent except Antarctica. First planted in 1947, the living laboratory has survived some of the worst hurricanes to pass through South Florida, including hurricanes Andrew, Wilma and Katrina.

“Storms are going to happen,” Pearson said. “The frustration to me is that we lost many things just to expediency and carelessness that could have been saved.”

The first day Pearson was allowed back on campus, he said he saw crews killing six or seven species that could have been saved. Days later, after Pearson had been working with his own crews to clear badly damaged plants and salvage others, another crew came and wreaked more havoc, he said.

There was an effort to clear the roads to give access to emergency personnel, so fallen trees and limbs were dumped on healthy arboretum trees, further damaging them, Pearson said.

Larry Marbert, vice president of Real Estate and Facilities for UM, said he walked three miles from his home to campus to do the initial damage assessment of campus after Irma because the road he lives on was blocked.

Marbert said the San Amaro area near the arboretum was identified as a top priority in that assessment because it was completely impassable and blocked access to a large section of campus. Safety and accessibility were the primary goals of the entire storm recovery process, Marbert said.

Pearson said he would have preferred if the limbs were moved to the empty parking lots, since most of the university community had not returned to campus, or to the nearby dump behind the arboretum, instead of pushing the trees into areas that border roads.

Pearson said he was excluded from some of the decision-making process and surprised when crews hired by facilities came to clear trees.

Marbert said they made a point to include Pearson’s expertise.

“We also worked directly with the academic departments that curate and are the stewards of the arboretum, and they literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the vendors that were working in the arboretum,” Marbert said.

Moving forward, Pearson said he hopes they can directly replace many of the lost trees. Although that may not be possible for some of the rarest species from Africa and Asia, Pearson said he had some of the more tender arboretum species growing in his personal garden as backups. He said he also hopes FEMA will provide funds to remedy some of the damage.

Facilities continues to work on assessments and will begin developing a restoration plan for the lost landscaping. Despite the damage, Marbert said he sees opportunities for improvement in the area through the planned arboretum expansion.

Students interested in helping restore the arboretum can show up to pick up leftover debris and care for the living museum from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in October.

“Hurricanes are going to happen here, but the positive side to it is I look at it as an opportunity to improve your collection,” Pearson said.