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Of Fire Wind & Water

By George Schmok

Unlike any year or issue before, this issue of LASN has the timing of a Rolex, as here we are writing about erosion control and stormwater management in the midst of one the most prolific hurricane seasons in modern history.

Global warming? Maybe . . . Of course, the planet has been warming since the last Ice Age . . . Cyclical weather patterns? Maybe . . . The last time it was close to this bad was in 1969 (unless you count hurricanes Andrew or Hugo.) I can still remember the flooding of southern California where they were sand-bagging the Santa Ana River bed behind our house. Countless homes throughout the region were swept into the night along otherwise placid stream banks . . .

Whether it be global warming or cyclical weather patterns, a great deal of the destruction is caused by development in areas that, by nature, are prone to weather related damage.

Of course, we all know about New Orleans being built, or having sunk, below sea level. In Costa Mesa, CA in 1969, the riverbanks were built up at least 25 feet above the flood plains. All along the Mississippi and other major rivers the levies are built at roof-top levels . . . Any failure brings disaster to the region.

Can any tree withstand the power of a tornado? Not a direct hit . . . That's pretty much a given. But what about a hurricane? Better chance, that's for sure.

So what can a Landscape Architect do to help avert the destruction of such menacing natural occurrences? I say you can do plenty . . .

In tornado alley it might not be a good idea to plan tall thin-caliper trees, but instead shorter, heavier stocks with deep roots should be the norm. (Although, I'm not sure a tornado can be tamed by anything but concrete.) However, I have also seen studies that show that terrain variations have an effect on the direction and longevity of a tornado.

For a hurricane, which, unlike a tornado that has a pinpoint of high speed wind, terrain has a definite effect on the wind speed and intensity of the damage caused by the event. One only has to watch any news show to see the newscasters standing behind buildings, delivering their report and then stepping outside the shelter into the onslaught of wind and debris, to see that terrain variations can alter the effect of the wind.

A hurricane also almost always comes in off the sea . . . That's why places like Galveston have built huge sea walls to keep the storm surge at bay. But what about grading sites to offer wind buffers in hurricane prone regions? Could a drainage channel, built crossways to the prevailing wind, serve to both redirect storm water and buffer the wind? Would the grading cost more than the rebuilding of the homes?

I doubt it. However, it could be insurance never used . . .

Could deep-rooted, heavy-stocked trees have an effect on the wind speed or damage done? My gut feeling is yes. But I haven't seen any data one way or the other.

In any event, Landscape Architects in severe weather regions could and should be using their talents to incorporate these elements into their designs. While stormwater diversion is expected in your designs, when was the last time a client asked to divert the wind? I'll bet the insurance companies would like for you to consider it . . .

When I first started LASN, the world was just beginning to realize the potential for a properly planned landscape to assist the preservation of a structure in a fire. I remember the Laguna Beach fires in Southern California and a lone house standing on an otherwise burnt hillside. Why had the house survived? Because the landscape was designed to keep fire off the property. Just as the landscape is now being recognized as a fire deterrent, I wonder if the same will be said about the landscape and wind damage . . . Only time and research will tell, but I'll tell you this . . . If it does have a positive effect, I'd much rather have you designing it than an engineer . . .

Just a thought from the peanut gallery . . . Well, at least from the nuts that I hang out with . . .

--God Bless

George Schmok, Publisher

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June 15, 2019, 10:27 pm PDT

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