When Hurricane Irma blew into Columbus Sept. 11, it’s 50 mph winds sent trees across the city tumbling to the ground. They blocked roads, toppled onto cars and smashed into houses.
During the storm, Columbus Public Works department received at least 200 calls about downed trees, a representative from the city’s forestry division said.
Irma’s powerful winds may have been the push over the edge for many of these trees, but it doesn’t take a hurricane to send a tree crashing to the ground. In fact, city arborist Scott Jones said Irma wasn’t nearly as bad as 2016’s summer microburst.
“In the right circumstance, any tree could go down. It’s all about the wind patterns,” Jones said.
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Still, Trees Columbus executive director Dorothy McDaniel said the storm has been a wake-up call for people who are now reconsidering how healthy their trees are, and what they can do to protect their property.
“People who have been putting off tree work are now thinking it’s time,” she said. “When you’re faced with a situation where you could have 60 mph winds, all of a sudden this looks like something you should have done.”
How do you know when a tree becomes hazardous? Jones said there are a few things you should look out for.
“Evaluate your trees,” Jones said. “Search the ground and see if you see any kind of heaving, where they’ve blown but maybe not blown over. If they’re starting to heave, or if you see roots that are higher on one side than the other, it’s a sign they need to come down.”
If the tree is young, but leaning, McDaniel said it can usually be fixed by straightening it out either by digging up and adjusting the root ball or by staking it to the ground for a season.
“Depending on the size of the tree, you may need to get some professional help,” she said.
If the tree looks like it’s lost a lot of branches or larger limbs, Jones said it’s probably time to call a certified arborist and have them take a look at it to be sure the tree is still healthy.
“If they’ve lost the majority of the canopy, the tree may not die at that particular year, but chances are it isn’t going to be as strong of a tree as it was prior to the storm damage.”
But even healthy trees can still fall in high winds like those from Irma, said Kevin T. Smith, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
“The first thing to know is that all trees have the potential to fail at some level of force from wind, snow, ice, either singly or in combination,” he said in an interview with Scientific American.
That’s because the tree trunk can act as a lever, increasing the force of wind on the bottom of the tree and the root system as the tree grows taller and more of it is bent by strong gusts. It’s even worse in urban areas like Columbus, because the concrete sidewalks and curbs can corral a tree’s root system into a tight space.
“A lot of times, when their root system is limited, with high winds they do not have enough to support the wind load,” said Jones.
At the end of the day, the best thing to do if you are concerned about a tree is to call a professional, both Jones and McDaniel said.
“When you have someone look at your trees, you want someone to be a certified arborist,” said McDaniel. That means they’ve been trained by the International Society of Arboriculture in the art and science of planting, caring for and maintaining trees. “Trees Columbus has a list of certified arborists who are local,” she added.
McDaniel said the spike in interest is good for the health of the city’s canopy, as more people take notice of the value of the trees on their property and all over town.
“People need to be aware of trees. We want to be maintaining the trees we have. We need to be taking down the trees that need to come down, because then we can plant a whole new generation of trees to replace the one that is dying out.”