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800-year-old live oak damaged by Katrina will be used to restore historic ship

LONG BEACH, Miss.—Standing about 70 feet tall, Bienville, an 800-year-old live oak tree, once commanded attention in the front yard of Dr. Charles and Sandra Lobrano's Mississippi home.

But after wrangling with Hurricane Katrina and taking a beating in the process, Bienville doesn't look as good as it used to. The tree is split down the middle: half standing defiantly, the other half pummeled to the ground.

The hawks, owls and quail that used to perch on the tree's octopus-like branches aren't around much anymore. Neither are the bunnies and armadillos that traversed the tree's broad stump.

But life for Bienville isn't over, say the Lobranos. They're working with a Connecticut-based preservation society to help their beloved tree escape the chipper.

Not long after the hurricane toppled Bienville on Aug. 29, the couple contacted preservationist Quentin Snediker. Snediker is director of the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard at the Mystic Seaport Museum, an organization that uses live oaks to restore historic ships.

The tree is named for Canadian-born Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, an explorer credited with founding cities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

"It was really a pretty tree when it was standing," Sandra Lobrano said fondly.

When Snediker saw the tree for the first time, he fell in love.

The curvature of Bienville's fallen branches is perfect for a boat's long, U-shaped frame, Snediker said.

Snediker has looked at live oaks and other trees scattered along the Gulf Coast.

"They look like huge fallen animals," he said. "The volume of trees destroyed has just been phenomenal."

Snediker met with Mississippi Department of Transportation officials and hopes the museum can get live oaks from the state on a regular basis, similar to a partnership Mystic Seaport has with South Carolina.

Before leaving Mississippi, Snediker said he saw some beautiful specimens in Pass Christian.

Eight sections, each weighing about 3,000 pounds, will be taken from Bienville and used to restore the frame of the Charles W. Morgan, a ship named for an enterprising businessman who owned and managed vessels in Massachusetts. At 163 years old, the ship is the nation's oldest whaling ship, retired in 1841.

The museum acquired it in 1941, and it was designated a national historic landmark in 1966.

The ship's estimated $3.5 million restoration started in the 1970s and has continued off and on since then. Restoration is expected to begin again in earnest in 2006.

The Lobranos are breathing a sigh of relief. Other trees might not be as lucky as Bienville, said Sandra Lobrano.

"The ones that are still standing, we don't know if they're going to make it," she said.

The Lobranos have three other large live oaks—Camille, Chuck and D'Iberville—in their front yard, which is one of the reasons they bought the four-acre home 20 years ago. The other oaks didn't suffer much damage, and the piece of Bienville that's still standing is expected to survive.

When the Lobranos' twins were young children, they would swing on Bienville's sturdy branches. Outside groups would regularly contact the Lobranos for permission to use the oaks as a scenic backdrop for prom and wedding pictures.

Oak trees even bore witness to the Lobranos' wedding in 1984 when the couple married under a canopy at Oak Alley near Vacherie, La.

Although happy that Bienville will be preserved, the Lobranos say they know they're lucky that overturned oaks are the only damage they sustained to their home.

"Out of the tragedy is a small bit of good," Snediker said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-OAKS

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