Louisiana lawmakers are working to address the “silent danger” of thousands of dead and beetle-infested trees

BATON ROUGE, La. — Dead pines, weakened by last summer’s drought and hungry beetles, are a major public safety concern for Louisiana residents, with fears that fragile tree limbs could crash onto homes, roads, power lines and businesses without warning, officials say.

As more residents reach out to state and local officials asking for guidance and financial help to remove trees from their yards, lawmakers on Louisiana’s House Emergency Beetle Subcommittee gathered for their first meeting Tuesday to try to come up with solutions. From directing residents to charities to asking the governor for help in seeking federal aid, officials say something must be done before there is widespread damage.

“You can be going about your normal life and the next thing you know you have a tree over your bedroom, your kids’ room, your car, or it hits a power line and causes a fire,” said Republican state Rep. Michael Johnson. “In some sense, it’s a silent danger that will eventually happen.”

Extreme drought occurred last year in Louisiana, a state that is typically one of the wettest in the nation. As millions of trees in the Bayou State struggled to survive, tiny bark borers, called Ips Engravers, feasted on the pines. The combination of weather and beetles caused more trees to die than some experts say they’ve ever seen before in central Louisiana.

Jim Meeker, a forest entomologist in Louisiana, said that in terms of tree mortality in the area, he has “never seen anything like it.”

“This is really a dangerous emergency for trees,” he said. “There are literally thousands upon thousands of dead standing pines that are hazardous to health, property, travel corridors and rights of way.”

Falling tree limbs are a constant problem in Louisiana, a state often subject to threats from tornadoes, severe weather and hurricanes. But with a large abundance of severely weakened and dead trees, officials say outside forces like strong winds may not even be needed to knock the trees down.

“We have it bad enough when storms come through, let alone with them (trees) falling without warning,” said Taylor Barras, the commissioner of the Louisiana Division of Administration.

Johnson said so far this year, he knows of at least two cases where weakened trees have fallen and killed people. In one case, a tree fell on a woman’s mobile home during a thunderstorm in Pineville. In another, a tree fell on a man in St. Landry Parish as he stood in a parking lot.

State officials, including lawmakers and those with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, say they have been receiving numerous calls a day from residents concerned about rotting trees in their yards and seeking resources to remove the pines. Tree removal can cost upwards of $1,000 and more than $3,000 for large trees close to the home.

The issue poses a significant financial burden to residents, especially in a state that has the second-highest poverty rate in the country, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Johnson said he recently received a letter from an 87-year-old woman asking for help after being told it would cost her $6,000 to remove four trees.

“She has no money, but she’s in danger of the trees falling on her home,” Johnson said. “She’s terrified.”

Also, if a dead tree isn’t removed and later falls on a neighbor’s property, officials say many insurance policies likely won’t cover the damage and the resident would be held liable.

On Tuesday, lawmakers discussed creating a list of volunteer groups that can help residents remove trees, in addition to possible emergency funding to help homeowners.

They also looked at solutions outside of Louisiana — possibly in the form of congressional bills that could help with federal resources. Gov. Jeff Landry could issue a state of emergency declaration, which could allow the use of state resources. Landry could go a step further and ask President Joe Biden for federal money and help.

Landry’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment on the governor’s possible plans.

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