Trees take a beating in tempest tossed by Tropical Storm Irene
A pliable sapling when the 1938 Hurricane blasted through the state, the tall hemlock beside a barn at Woodbridge Farm in Salem survived lashings from hurricanes Carol, Gloria, Floyd, Bob and others.
It succumbed, however, to the weaker but more persistent winds of Tropical Storm Irene.
During the Aug. 26 storm, the hemlock broke in half. Its bushy crown crashed into the barn's roof and remained there until Thursday, when arborists used skill and muscle, along with a cherry picker, chain saws, ropes and a wood chipper, to turn it into a stump and a pile of mulch. It wasn't the only tree on the organic vegetable and livestock farm to fall on fences and paths.
"We've pulled nine trees off houses, some bigger than that," said Mike Naumowitz Jr., referring to the hemlock, as his father, Mike Sr., owner of Shoreline Tree Service in Lyme, hovered over the barn roof in the cherry-picker basket, chain saw in hand. Their first call came at 6:30 that Sunday morning just after the winds began howling. On the line was an Old Saybrook homeowner with a red oak on his house.
Arborists like the Naumowitzes and Jon Parker, who owns Yankee Tree Service in Old Lyme and often works with the Naumowitzes, have more than a month's backlog of storm-related tree felling, trimming and tree assessment ahead of them. They were busy right up to the first wind gusts, cutting trees pre-emptively for nervous homeowners.
"We're still attending to the dangerous ones," Parker said. "There's a lot of tree damage in all the towns. And now that a tropical storm has come through, people are thinking it's time to look at their trees in light of what would happen if we had a category 1 or 2 hurricane come through."
Trees hit the worst
Trees got it worst. Beaches, dunes and agricultural and landscaping plants also bore the effects of Tropical Storm Irene, but trees were the part of the natural and landscaped environment that experienced the most dramatic impact.
Even trees that survived may have been weakened with splits that can be pathways to insect and fungal infestations, experts say.
"If you've got cracked branches, get rid of those," said Jeffrey Ward, chief scientist in the Department of Forestry and Horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. "Have an arborist come out."
Many trees lost a lot of leaves, but because the storm came in late summer after trees had already stored up nutrients for winter, the loss won't have a major impact on trees' health, Ward said.
Chris Martin, state forester and director of the Division of Forestry at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the loss of green leaves may have a small impact on colorful foliage this fall.
But he's most concerned about trees near houses and other buildings that came through the storm with damage that may not be obvious immediately. The forestry division has put information on its section of the DEEP website.
"We're trying to get information out to homeowners for getting tree work done in their yards," he said. "Just because a tree's damaged doesn't mean it needs to come down."
Sometimes, pruning, cabling or other steps can save it. It's best to get an expert's advice, he said.
Brad Durfee, an arborist in New London, said demand for his services has been "insane."
"I've seen trees 30 inches in diameter that have come down," he said. He's taken a fallen tree off a crushed car in East Lyme, others off houses and garages, and a cottage in North Stonington that got "clobbered."
Now, he said, he's getting calls from people worried about the next big storm.
"There's really no end to the fear," he said. "People are wanting to clear their lots. It'll be difficult to persuade people to keep a tree."
Good, and bad, sides
And yet, in forests, hurricanes and tropical storms can have a beneficial thinning effect.
"The weaklings tend to show themselves in times like this," said Martin, who has flown over the state forests to survey the damage. "It creates canopy openings in the forests, and that creates some early successional habitat. It's a natural disturbance."
Early successional habitat is a type in short supply in the state. DEEP has been using grants and its own staff to create more because it supports many bird and other animal species that are threatened. When large trees are cleared and an area opens to sunlight, saplings, shrubs and grasses help fill in the understory.
"The wildflowers will look a lot better next year" in those areas, said Ward, although those openings can also provide places for invasive species like Japanese barberry. On the plus side, the downed and broken trees in forests can turn into homes for ant populations that become lunch boxes for woodpeckers.
"It'll have both beneficial and negative impacts," Ward said.
Ward and other scientists will be watching for other possible and worrisome effects of the storm. High winds can blow invasive and highly destructive insects into new areas, including the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle, which has destroyed many acres of trees in neighboring states.
As fall approaches and people start stocking up on firewood, he and Martin are urging residents to be especially careful about making sure they buy their supplies from local, in-state sources, and familiarize themselves with what the ash borer and the beetle look like so they can report either if seen.
Ward noted that the first detection of the woolly adelgid in the state came after Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and scientists suspect that it may have blown over from Long Island.
Tending to the trees
To report sightings of the emerald ash borer or the Asian longhorned beetle, call the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station at (203) 974-8474 or send an email to: CAES.StateEntomologist@ct.gov. For information, visit: www.emeraldashborer.info; and: www.beetlebusters.info.
For information on licensed arborists and hiring contractors for tree pruning and removal, visit: http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.
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