Sandy's lesson: Proper care for trees will prevent headaches during future storms

A tree fell onto a house at 60 A tree fell onto a house at 60 Florence Ave. in Dobbs Ferry. (Oct. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Betty Ming Liu

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The spectacular trees that have been signature to the Hudson Valley's tourism trade and its annual autumn leaf-peeping season played an uncharacteristically destructive role during Hurricane Sandy.

Monday's ferocious winds toppled evergreens and upended maples that, in turn, fell on electrical cables, took down poles and exposed live wires, causing blocked roads and power outages.

However, environmentalists argue that trees, if properly cared for, can be the region's resource for conservation.

In an age where global warming is heating up the atmosphere and causing more severe storms, tree planting "cools neighborhoods and absorbs carbon dioxide," said Sacha Spector, director of conservation science at Scenic Hudson, a Poughkeepsie environmental organization.

Along with shrubs and flora, they are part of the general greenery that can help even prevent flooding, especially when they are part of healthy wetlands-- areas which act as sponges that soak up extra water in flood zones.

 

WHERE TREES ARE PLANTED MAKES A DIFFERENCE

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In the immediate, trees are the cause for the closed roads throughout Hudson Valley, including 1,000 unpassable roads in Westchester County alone, according to Con Edison. A typical example is New Castle, where residents in 5,300 of the town's 6,500 homes are waiting for Con Edison crews to turn off the power running through downed cables and transformers so that the locals can cut up and clear out the debris.

The irony, said Penelle Paderewski, the New Castle town administrator, is that "the trees are why people move here from the city. We have all kinds of trees."

No one type of tree is to blame for the post-Sandy chaos. And there isn't a single issue that caused many of the trees to topple, explained Rose Baglia, resource educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orange County.

"If you have very shallow soil to bedrock, then the trees will be more prone to tipping because the roots can't go as deep in the soil," she said. "I had one tree come down that was a pine. The wind snapped it in the middle because it had a lot of growth on top."

Arborist Jim Presutti, president of the New York State Nursery Landscape Association, explained that "90 percent of the trees you see out there, their roots are in the top 36 inches of soil."

Once planted, their roots spread outward rather than down, especially in this region where "we have rocky, dense, very clay soil. It's difficult for a tree to push into the soil real deep," Presutti said.

The Hudson Valley's tree issues stem from development decisions made decades ago, when seeds and saplings were initially located too close to streets and sidewalks, giving their roots scant room to expand. Today's planners have better technology and can, at the very least, build in raised sidewalks that give roots room to grow.

Where trees are planted also makes a difference. Many of the trees that fell this week were located as stand-alone "'edge trees' that don't have the protection of other trees like in a forest, where they have protection together from the wind," Presutti said.

 

USING TREES AS A RESOURCE IN STORMS

As Gov. Cuomo called Wednesday for a systemwide approach to addressing climate change, Spector noted that trees need to be strategically deployed for what they can offer.

Scenic Hudson, which owns 50 parks in New York State, has spent $22 million to conserve 559 acres of tidal wetlands and nearly 3,000 acres of additional buffering uplands, and it has more projects in the works, Spector said.

Preparing the region for future weather onslaughts has led to "liberating" trees along the Saw Mill Parkway from invasive vines, said Ann-Marie Mitroff, river program director at Groundwork Hudson Valley, a Yonkers-based organization committed to protecting the Saw Mill River.

For the past decade, the group has been concentrating on a half-mile stretch of the parkway between Yonkers and Hastings, cutting out the porcelain berry and oriental bittersweet vines that crawled over trees and choked them to death. In their place, the environmentalists planted more than 150 red oaks, sycamores and osier dogwood.

"We've been working hard to free the trees so that in storms, they don't fall over," Mitroff said.

The goal is to maximize the benefits of trees in flash flooding situations caused by the immediate impact of heavy rains hitting impermeable surfaces like cement and blacktop roadways.

"One of the most important things about trees is that they soak up an immense amount of water," Mitroff said. "When water comes down in rain, trees provide an enormous harbor. When water comes down in trees, it takes the water a lot more time to get back into the ground."

If trees can be protected and properly deployed, it will spare officials the headache of cutting down nature's bounty.

When Con Edison recently cleared trees from power lines in Westchester, "you should have seen the uproar among people," County Executive Rob Astorino told Newsday. "You have to balance tree clearing and pruning with keeping with the natural beauty. In Westchester County, trees and open space are very much apart of our daily life."

 

With John Dyer

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