Albizia Trees Still a Concern This Hurricane Season

Jul 27, 2015

Credit Rich Wlosinski

With an active hurricane season expected this year, communities in East Hawai‘i are once again focusing their efforts on the invasive albizia tree. Last year’s Tropical Storm Iselle toppled many of the trees, downing power lines, blocking roads and damaging homes. And as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, many are worried the next big storm could bring similar results.

Nearly a year after Tropical Storm Iselle struck the Puna District on the Big Island, Springer Kaye says remnants of the storm’s damage still remain. “If you drive around Nanawale, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods,” said Kaye, the manager of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee. “You’ll see just stacks of logs piled up on the side of the road.”

Damage in the Puna district in East Hawaii after Tropical Storm Iselle.
Credit Flint Hughes

Those would be stacks of fallen albizia logs, reminders of one of the main culprits for last year’s storm damage. Kaye says 90% of the damage in the area was caused by albizia trees. “They’re just so massive. These trees grow very fast, an inch a day in height. And so the wood as it develops is very weak. They’re very top heavy and the roots tend to be very shallow,” Kaye explained. “So it doesn’t take a whole lot to get them swinging and toppling over.”

“What we learned unequivocally is that it’s devastating,” said Flint Hughes, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s researched the impact of albizia on native forests for nearly 15 years. Over time he’s seen more trees crop up in residential areas across the state. He hopes last year’s storm damage in Puna serves as a wakeup call for funding a more aggressive plan. “It’s really the fact that we haven’t done anything,” said Hughes. “That’s how we’ve gotten to this point.”

Credit Hawaiian Electric Companies

Last year’s storm destroyed dozens of homes and cost the state millions of dollars. Hawaiian Electric Companies alone spent $13.7 million restoring power lines across East Hawai‘i. Despite the high cost of cleanup, a bill seeking funding to control albizia didn’t even make it out of the legislature. State Senator Russell Ruderman sponsored the bill, that would have put $2 million dollars towards a mitigation plan. “These costs and the effects we saw will be repeated. It’ll happen every time a hurricane comes through,” said Ruderman. “Whereas if we could get ahead of the game and control albizia, then the next hurricane won’t be nearly as devastating.” 

Credit Flint Hughes

Lawmakers did eventually allocate $1.5 million to the Department of Transportation to address the albizia threat along state highways. But that pilot project won’t start until 2016. With little help from the state this year, Springer Kaye says she’s looking for individuals to get involved at a community level. “I think the message is, you can do this,” said Kaye. If it’s one Saturday a month, one Saturday a quarter, whatever you can give to get out on your land, on your roads and in those backyard areas to control these trees. It can be done.”

And so far she’s making progress. Since last year’s storm, Kaye says 31,000 albizia trees have been removed.

For more information or to get involved in an upcoming albizia workshop, visit the Big Island Invasive Species Committee website.