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Work underway to reroot 22 historic banyan trees uprooted by EF1 tornado

'The goal is to clear the roadway and preserve these historic trees,' Chief Rocco Napoli says
Posted at 4:35 PM, Jun 13, 2024

HOBE SOUND, Fla. — As cleanup in Hobe Sound continues in wake of Wednesday's EF1 tornado, the race is on to save Martin County's historic banyan trees on Bridge Road.

The National Weather Service said the tornado hit Hobe Sound at 10:40 a.m., likely touching down just west of U.S. Highway 1 and continuing east along Bridge Road before crossing the St. Lucie River and into Jupiter Island.

Wednesday, authorities confirmed the tornado felled 22 of the historic ficus trees lining Bridge Road's Banyan Tree tunnel.

The rush to save them is underway, and it's a big deal.

"It's very sad to see this," said Hobe Sound resident, Karen Matry. "Get some tree people out here and help."

Drive through the magical, whimsical landmark and you'll feel like you're in a fairy tale.

Banyan Tree Tunnel in Hobe Sound
The whimsical, magical-looking banyan tree tunnel on Bridge Road draws tourists from all over.

It's the reason the iconic tunnel is a draw for tourists and on almost every Martin County "must see" list.

"It's amazing, the sun, especially this time of year, shines right down there," said Russell Kitz. "People take wedding shots here all the time.”

"It's just sad, it's an area that I ride pretty regularly, and it's a beautiful area," added another resident. "Just, to see the trees down, my in-laws walk this area pretty much almost every day, my daughter just had her senior pictures here."

So far, crews uprighted at least four big ficus trees and worked to start re-rooting them and uprighting the rest.

"Their goal is to clear the roadway and preserve these historic trees," said Martin County Fire Rescue Division Chief Rocco Napoli.

Martin County Fire Rescue Division Chief Rocco Napoli June 2024.png
Martin County Fire Rescue Division Chief Rocco Napoli says the goal is to clear the roadway while preserving the historic trees.

"Worried that we're going to lose the trees," said Kitz.

"Breaks your heart," said Paula Cooper McArthur.

"I was surprised, surprised is probably the better word," added her brother, Harry McArthur. "To see that many that were taken down, you don't think it can happen."

Harry McArthur owns the iconic Harry and the Natives restaurant just up the road from the tunnel, while Cooper-McArthur wrote the book "Hobe Sound History."

Their parents moved to Martin County in the 1950s, and the brother and sister are the people to ask when it comes to all things Hobe Sound.

Hobe Sound resident Karen Matry June 2024
Hobe Sound resident Karen Matry says the fallen trees are a sad sight.

Both said the ficus trees' iconic roots run deep.

"This is what they looked like when they were so small," said Cooper-McArthur, showing WPTV's Kate Hussey pictures of when they were first planted, which is all thanks to Joseph and Permelia Reed, the founding Jupiter Island family and environmental icons.

The Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is named after their son.

The couple moved to Jupiter Island from Connecticut in 1932 with the goal of preserving the area's nature.

The McArthur siblings said the Reeds planted the banyan trees on the Jupiter Island side of the bridge in the late 1930s to early 1940s, while the rest of the trees were added in the late 1940s to early 1950s.

Russell Kitz resident lives near banyan trees Hobe Sound.png
Russell Kitz says the area is frequented by those that enjoy the scenic route and is a destination for photo shoots.

"They were just so beautiful and significant to the entrance of Jupiter Island, which is what they wanted to sustain," said Cooper-McArthur.

The magical tunnel we now know and love is thanks entirely to their efforts and the efforts of those who have continued to maintain and preserve the tunnel.

The trees, now nearly 100 years old, have stood the test of time, through many a storm and development.

Cooper-McArthur said that after hurricanes Frances and Jean some of the trees were damaged, but a landscaper came in and re-supported the trees. Both siblings said the tunnel has never sustained this much damage from a storm.

"It's kind of unbelievable," said Cooper-McArthur.

Paula Cooper McArthur and her brother Harry McArthur JUne 2024.png
Paula Cooper McArthur and her brother, Harry McArthur, say they are surprised the storm knocked down so many of the historic trees.

"It's sad because we've been riding down that road all our lives, we used to go to the beach every day so we knew that road every day. [The trees are] a big part of our lives," said Harry McArthur.

That's why county crews worked until about 1 a.m. Thursday to save the trees, and came right back out early in the morning to continue the work to keep many of Martin County's oldest residents around.

"That’s been the one constant," WPTV reporter Kate Hussey said.

"Yeah, exactly, it's the trees," replied Kitz.

Bicyclist says his daughter took pictures on Bridge Road
Bicyclist says his in-laws frequent this area and his daughter just took her senior pictures there.

It's a constant folks don't want to see leave.

"Stay!" chuckled Cooper-McArthur. "Stay, so we don't lose them!"

Crews said they'll likely work through the night Thursday to continue clearing the trees off the road.

Martin County Fire Rescue's Cory Pippin also said the intersection of Gomez and Bridge roads was the last area of concern crews were continuing to clear Thursday.

All other roadways were back open to traffic.