Part of the damage after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore across the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, was 5 million acres of broken timber.
The U.S. Forest Service estimated that the volume of damaged wood across the Southeast was enough to build 800,000 single-family homes.
Researchers at Mississippi State University are measuring the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the structure, performance, capacity and future of the region's lumber industry.
"Following Hurricane Katrina, many off-the-cuff observations were made about the regional lumber industry, but tangible data was lacking," said Thomas McConnell, a graduate student in the College of Forest Resources at MSU. Through a survey of lumber mills, McConnell is clarifying many aspects of Katrina's impact.
"Past research conducted on natural disasters in the South has focused on quantifying the damage to the timber supply itself," McConnell explained. "But production mills must have timber that is appropriate, available for harvest, affordable and accessible to sustain production."
McConnell designed his project to determine if there was a significantly negative effect on lumber production after the storm.
He divided survey responders into groups: hardwood mills, softwood mills, timber owners and nontimber owners. He further divided them based on geography. By dividing the responses, researchers could determine significant differences between the unique groups.
"By dividing the mills into groups, even if there had not been a significant overall effect due to the hurricane, we could determine whether or not certain groups were more affected than others," said Rubin Shmulsky, interim head of MSU's Department of Forest Products. "It allowed for deeper probing into who was possibly influenced by the shock of the storm."
From January to March this year, MSU researchers surveyed 144 mills in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to evaluate Katrina's impacts.
"We hope the information gathered from this project will assist in evaluating the forest industry's response to a natural catastrophe," McConnell said.
The survey showed lumber production was significantly and negatively influenced by Hurricane Katrina. Some mills reduced average production up to 15 percent. The storm's impact was felt on local markets as almost 3 percent of the mills shut down following Katrina.
"Mill type and location were not significant indicators of lost production," McConnell said. "That means Katrina's impact on mill efficiency is fairly evenly distributed."
The researchers used the U.S. Forest Service's map displaying the range of estimated damage across the area affected by the storm. Five zones were designated based on damage ratings of heavy, moderate, light, scattered light and no damage.
Mills that owned timberland had to focus initially on salvage operations, and many had to build additional wet-storage facilities to keep lumber before processing. Seventeen months after Katrina hit, mills are still taking lumber from wet storage.
The test of the survival for lumber manufacturing in Mississippi and Alabama is not over yet.
A 'letdown' phase is setting in following the initial flooding of the market with salvage timber. Finished product inventories are climbing as prices drop dramatically, Shmulsky said.
"All these factors, combined with the increase in foreign competition, have led the Southern Forest Products Association to predict a second consecutive year of declining lumber production," he said.
The letdown period is compounded by national economic issues.
"Surviving this period is the greatest obstacle ahead for lumber mills," McConnell said. "In the 10 years following Hurricane Hugo, South Carolina alone lost one-fifth of its lumber-producing facilities. Hopefully, our segment of the industry will fare better."