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Old wood for an old ship

Live oaks downed in Hurricane Katrina to be used on 165-year-old whaleship

Live oaks downed in Hurricane Katrina to be used on 165-year-old whaleship

The sound of Hurricane Katrina’s 140-mph winds through the branches of Sandra Lobrano’s six huge live oaks — those Spanish moss-draped “Gone With the Wind” symbols of the deep South — was incessant the morning of Aug. 29. “It just never let up,” she says. “Steady, heavy train sounds, like you were sitting at a railroad crossing.”

And then at 10:30, when the storm’s most ferocious efforts were focused on Long Beach, Miss., it wasn’t the sound but the tremor that vibrated through the ground and shook the home under the feet of Lobrano, her husband, Charles, and their twins, Powell and Katherine, 16.

Bienville, an 800-year-old live oak that the Lobranos named for a French explorer, had split in two, half of it thundering to the ground on their front lawn. Minutes before, the tree — which had sprouted around the time Genghis Khan was conquering and about 400 years before Shakespeare had written a single play or sonnet — had supported branches that spanned 150 feet with a trunk that measured 32 feet in circumference. (It had no Spanish moss, only resurrection ferns.) Now it was splintered kindling, just more debris in the scoured landscape.

Unless, that is, some use could be found. And it was.

In the spring of 2007, Bienville’s curved grain will be shaped by the sawyers at Mystic (Conn.) Seaport into frames for the restoration of the museum’s 1841 whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan. Bienville will be one of about 200 live oaks harvested in the aftermath of Katrina from the Gulf Coast and trucked to Mystic.

Quentin Snediker, the museum’s shipyard director, had been the recipient of a “steady supply of small quantities” of live oak from highway departments in the Southeast since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. But through a series of events, Katrina has presented him with literally a windfall of the valuable timber.

Snediker knew when the August ’05 hurricane swept across the Gulf of Mexico that, in time, he would find more live oak for his work. “With the devastation of Katrina, we were holding back,” he says. “We thought it inappropriate to divert the attention from other efforts for our need for material.”

Then he got two phone calls: one was from Mobile, Ala., the other from Dr. Lobrano. The anesthesiologist and his wife had thought the family tree might be of use for work on the USS Constitution in Boston or the Constellation in Baltimore. Told that neither was in need, Lobrano followed a suggestion and called Mystic, where he reached Snediker.

“I took that to mean it was time to start thinking about this more actively,” Snediker recalls. “We decided to concentrate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis. There were essentially a large number of trees down along Highway 90, along the beach there.The trees were washed out, not broken by the storm,” leaving the trunks whole and more useful.

Sandra Lobrano became a valuable volunteer in the effort to identify available live oak, Snediker says. So did Brion Capo, an independent urban forest consultant who represents the cities of Gulfport and Long Beach. Capo, a humorous fellow who was raised a few miles west of the brief Mississippi coast in New Orleans and recalls playing on long, low live oak limbs as a child, explains the value of the trees.

“Nobody grows live oak for harvesting, but it’s particularly suited for what it’s prized for,” and that’s shipbuilding, says Capo. “You wouldn’t have to rebuild a ship every five years,” because of its rot resistence.

As a result, live oak became the first protected tree in the country. The federal government built schooners to track down British live oak poachers, he says. “[Now] each city along the coast … has their own ordinance protecting trees.” Capo says the Gulf Coast was advertised 150 years ago as a “vacation spot to come and sit under these trees. It was named the Emerald Coast for the dark green foliage, very verdant and continuous,” he says.

Only about 2 to 3 percent of the live oak along the Gulf Coast was destroyed by Katrina, Capo says. The trees are very resilient, he explains, and their relative survival stands in stark contrast to the devastation the hurricane brought around them.

“The devastation of things that you were familiar with that are no longer there,” says Sandra Lobrano. “Street signs are gone, drug stores. An old restaurant that’s been here since 1928, totally gone. Every restaurant that you can imagine that you’ve ever eaten in in the last 40 years, they’re gone. It’s very, very sad. You wonder how it’s going to be built back.”

When the Lobranos’ tree was split in two, they dreaded its probable fate. “The live oaks are maybe the second-oldest trees in America,” after the California redwoods, Sandra Lobrano says. “They’re real big and curvey and windy, and they bend with the wind and have a lot of live animals that live in them. If they could speak, they could tell you a lot about what they’ve witnessed over the years.” In fact, local American Indians told the Lobranos the trees were once a meeting place for their ancestors before the Europeans came.

“Once you lose one, you don’t want to see them discarded or burned up or put in a big hole and buried,” she says. “When we talked to Quentin, he asked if we could help him procure more live oaks. We knew that Pass Christian, the town next to us, which was totally devastated, had probably between 75 and 100 live oaks on the beach that were down. Quentin gave me specifics of what he wanted. We started marking the trees. When Quentin got here [in October], we took him to Pass Christian. We started working with the mayor, who gives the contracts out for FEMA to clear the trees. Then we started working with mayors in Biloxi and Gulfport. We have all their support.”

Perhaps they share the fondness that arborist Capo has for the trees. “I grew up in New Orleans by the zoo,” he says. “The limbs on the older trees, when they pass 300 or 500 years old, the limbs will reach out 25 or 30 feet from the trunk and touch the ground and then go back up again. My mother would let me hold her finger and stagger up these limbs. Then I got older and tried to ride my bicycle up the limbs and learned to walk several blocks without touching the ground.”

Snediker expresses his thanks for the support Mystic got in the South. “They really extended themselves,” he says. In June, Mystic began milling the 250 tons of lumber that was harvested, he says, which will provide up to 90 percent of the framing needs for the Morgan project.