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Wednesday, 19 September 2007 00:00

Hurricane survivors

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One of those paradoxes of getting older: it seems you have more occasions to gather with friends and family, but these occasions are too often funerals. Last weekend I made a whirlwind trip to Biloxi, Miss., to be with my best friend as his dad, a WWII veteran, was interred at Biloxi National Cemetery. It was my first trip to the Gulf Coast since Katrina and fittingly, I traveled through some heavy rain and winds generated by Hurricane Humberto.

After the service we gathered at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant in Biloxi to share our sadness at Jesse’s passing and to celebrate the joy of having known him. Standing in the courtyard at the restaurant, I noticed a plaque on the wall about 15 feet high marking Katrina’s storm surge and a huge live oak purported to be 2,000 years old.

One of the reports I read regarding Katrina noted that 6,000 of the 25,000 homes and businesses along Biloxi Boulevard were destroyed by Katrina’s surge. However, the majority of stately live oaks survived, as did most of their cousins in New Orleans. One has to wonder how many hurricanes these ancient inhabitants of the coastal Cheniers and marshes have endured.

Have live oaks endured and thrived in their coastal habitats because of their natural habits, or have their environs shaped them over eons? Like most of nature and natural processes, it is probably a combination of the two, but one thing is sure — if you were going to design a hurricane-proof tree, the live oak would be the template to start with. Their thick, squat trunks and low spreading canopy create a kind of “spoiler” that directs the wind up and over the tree. Plus, the live oak is well grounded. Its heavy roots reach out to the width of the canopy.

Remember “Old Ironsides?” The U.S.S. Constitution built in 1799 earned that nickname when British cannonballs bounced off her hull during the war of 1812. Well, those iron sides were actually live oak. This toughness led to the live oak being the first tree actively preserved in the U.S. By 1845 the government owned more than a quarter of a million acres of predominantly live oak forest across five southern states.

Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens of what is now University of Louisiana in Lafayette created the Live Oak Society in 1934.

All members of the LOS, except the chairman — currently Coleen Perilloux Landry of Metairie, La. — are trees. LOS’s current president is the “Seven Sisters Oak” of Mandeville, La. The oak is believed to be more than 1,200 years old and has a girth of more than 38 feet.

It makes me wonder if the live oak my Mom planted in our backyard in Mer Rouge, La., when my oldest brother was born is still standing. I know it was a few years back, but I didn’t pass by that old vacant lot on my last trip. I hope it is standing and continues to stand, and I hope that whoever owns the property today is aware of the LOS.

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