Ok. First things first: After every storm that breaks apart or topples some of our trees, the first thing to do is take a deep breath. Yes, maybe that leaning evergreen found a final resting place on your roof. Maybe that large limb fell just outside your child’s room. Maybe your car was damaged or destroyed. It’s easy to get lost in the moment and become afraid of your trees. Don’t do that.
The second thing is, now that the ice has melted, it’s time to inspect. All of your trees, but especially the evergreens, like magnolias and pines, have just been put through a pretty severe test. Before you go out to play with the kids or sit around the firepit, let’s walk through an easy visual inspection you can do to make sure the coast is clear.
You want to look at three areas of a tree in a visual inspection.
Canopy — From a safe distance, and before a closer inspection, look into the canopy of the trees. Look for any branches that may have broken but are still hanging in the tree. Look at the places where main branches divide or where main branches grow from the trunk to see if any cracks have formed. Binoculars are great for this inspection if you have them, but anything that is an imminent threat will probably be easy to see with your eyes.
Stem — Now that it’s safer to walk under the tree, move in closer and check out the lower stem. Walk all the way around, looking from the base up, to see if any cracks have formed.
Root Flare — Any tree that was already growing at a lean before the storm may have begun to lose its grip on the earth. You will see signs of this on the backside of the lean. Look for any lifting or heaving of the earth behind the lean. If a new strain has happened you may see cracks in the soil 3-5 feet back from the trunk. You can also walk around behind the lean and press down with your feet. An early indication of root flare strain is often a feeling of sponginess between the roots. The ground should feel firm.
If you find any of these conditions, have an arborist check it out with you before getting too comfortable around the tree. If you don’t find any of these conditions, it’s time to start enjoying again, which brings me back to the first thing.
If you or your neighbor’s things were damaged or almost damaged by toppled or broken trees, it will be easy to listen to a little self-protective voice inside your head telling you that living with trees isn’t worth the risk.
I can assure you that no one hears that voice more loudly than my wife! Over the course of my career, she’s been forced to witness every possible way in which rare storms can transform Richmond’s graceful trees into threatening weapons of destruction. So how is it that I convince her to live in a small, one-story house surrounded by massive loblolly pine trees that could slice through our home like a knife through butter? I try my best to become another, louder voice inside her head. Here’s what that voice says:
The rewards of living with trees outweigh the risks. That summer sun can be hot. That unabated winter wind can cut right through you. Trees can be you and your children’s best friends. Like dogs, they are great listeners, and also like most dogs, what they do communicate is deeply hopeful and encouraging.
These storms are relatively rare events. The last big ice storm in Richmond (before this next one…) was at the turn of the century. Our trees haven’t been weight-loaded(which is very different than wind-loading) in a long, long time. We should not be surprised there was damage. Where there was no strain(broken parts) there was only stress, which helps the trees grow stronger.
We have insurance to rebuild or replace broken stuff.
Being killed inside our house by a falling tree would be more statistically unlucky than dying in a plane crash. About the only thing more statistically unlucky would be getting struck by lightning.
“Yes. Of course, Honey. When the forecast is bad enough I will go to another safer place with you during the storm so we won’t risk being sliced like butter.”
Just one final note. In many cases, the damage we clean up after a major storm involves “pre-existing conditions” that were found out when the storm stress reached a critical level. Regular visits with an arborist will help identify these conditions, and plans can be made to mitigate or remove the risks. Having this step in your annual routine will greatly reduce your risk of tree damage in a major storm.