Increased tree fall in Columbus caused by winds, record rainfall

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 14, 2013 

When a tree falls during a rain and wind storm, think of Jell-O.

That substance is what some soil in the area has mimicked since February's record rainfall of 12.79 inches, says City Arborist Scott Jones.

While March has been drier, Columbus has still recorded 1.09 inches of rain. So far this year, the city has received 16.78 inches, almost half the 35.21 inches received during 2012. During January to early March of 2012, Columbus received 10.73 inches, just above the average expected for the early part of the year.

"When the root systems get that wet and receive just any kind of wind, they can't stabilize and they topple over," said Jones, who works as Urban Forestry and Beautification Manager for Columbus Public Works. "And a lot of times a mild wind, something that would not do that, will make them fall."

Some trees in the Lakebottom Park area have been removed due to safety concerns, while some fell over before city officials could get to them. But it is not limited to Midtown.

A fallen tree blocked traffic and caused one collision in late February on Steam Mill Road. Some residents even have had otherwise stable trees come crashing down, roots and all, in their backyards. In fact, enough have fallen that the City Manager's Office called a moratorium on fees associated with having tree debris removed by the Department of Public Works.

Public Works Director Pat Biegler said usually residents are asked to pay $50 per truck load in addition to $24 per ton for trees off private property to be removed by the city. Because of the unusual weather, however, a suspension was put on those fees, which is expected to last until March 22.

"Sometimes the moratorium will be for a specific part of town, but there was enough damage across several different areas that we made it citywide," Biegler said. "We go two to three weeks based on the volume that we see out there. That's usually enough time for people to get them cut up and out to the curb."

Residents who wish to take advantage of the moratorium will need to cut the trunk as small as possible so that city machinery can handle the weight. All parts of the tree should be no longer than four feet.

This moratorium only applies to trees that were knocked over during the storm, Biegler said.

"If it was there before the storm, we usually mark those," Biegler said. "So, if it was there before the storm, or if someone decides to cut down all the trees in their yard and put them on the curb, we won't pick that up for free."

Though the recent burst of uprooted trees has caused unexpected troubles in the way of damaged property and blocked roadways, the conditions are not that uncommon. Trees topple all the time, due in part to Georgia's fluctuating weather conditions, said WRBL meteorologist Bob Jeswald. Especially, he said, when aided by drought conditions.

"When you're in years of drought, those trees are going to naturally come to the surface looking for rain," he said. "And when you keep getting these extreme conditions, really dry and then really wet, those are going to weaken the face of the tree and the roots. They'll rot. It's easier for the tree to come up."

The making of an unstable tree is a slow process, Jones said. It's also a complicated one. Public officials expect trees to fall during extreme weather conditions, but might have difficulty predicting which areas stand in danger before large ones come down.

"It really depends, because there's various type of soils. There's clay soil, there's porous soil, soil that drains well. Then you have to ask if it's at the bottom of a hill, or the top, or near a river," Jones said. "When you have that much rain that quickly, the water has nowhere to go. There's going to be a lot of variables, depending on how well the water can drain."

To counteract dangerous conditions, Urban Forestry works partially off citizen reports. Trees planted on public property that stand in danger of falling are often checked by the city after they are reported by residents.

Tumbling trees aren't the department's only concern. Urban Forestry also plants 750 to 1,200 trees from January to March, often in public areas that have been requested by residents during the rest of the year. The saturated soil will most likely not affect younger trees, which are more resistant to strong winds.

"All the citizens have to do is call in and ask that a tree be planted," he said. "Then we estimate the situation and see how many trees they want, is it under a power lines, and then we decide whether we can honor their request."

That effort was temporarily halted during some of February, when planting conditions were not ideal. Trees Columbus, a nonprofit dedicated to boosting Columbus' tree canopy in addition to building community, also had its efforts delayed.

"The only casualties we've had is rescheduling tree plantings," said Trees Columbus Executive Director Dorothy McDaniel. "When you plant you want to plant in loose, dry soil because the roots need oxygen, and when you plant in the mud it's like planting in cement."

Until areas affected by the drought can receive long-term incremental rain, the chance for teetering older trees will most likely stay the same. Time provides some amount of hope for the newly planted generation if the drought lifts, however.

"It's those trees that are older that are crumpling and falling and rotting," Jeswald said. "In a few years time, that may be the case for the younger saplings. We've still got to plant them anyway."

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