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Friday, August 31, 2012

Irene damage still around one year later

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI.org News staff
There’s no shortage of stats associated with last summer's tropical storm Irene. Some points are worth noting, however, especially when comparing the damage inflicted on two New England states.

Rhode Island
• Top wind gusts: 83 mph.
• Rainfall: 5.3 inches.
Trees suffered the brunt of the storm. It was hard to tally the exact damage. An estimated 14 percent of the trees in Warwick were uprooted or harmed. 

Tropical storm Irene caused Rhode Island considerable damage last summer,
including these trees on Providence's East Side. (ecoRI News file photo)
The destruction was likely worse in Providence and Bristol counties, which endured the strongest winds. Local tree experts say younger, fast growing trees, such as Norway maples, were most susceptible. Most were in need of pruning and largely neglected, causing them to grow irregularly and become prone to breakage.
John Stanturf, a senior scientist with the U.S. Forest Service in Atlanta, said Rhode Island trees likely suffered significant wind and water damage because Irene pushed directly up the mouth of Narragansett Bay. Trees along roads and open fields and other exposed areas suffered the most.
Thanks to climate change, the impact of hurricanes and other coastal storms will be more frequent and cause additional inland damage, according to Stanturf.  “It’s something people have to realize," he said. "It’s not just people on the coast who have to deal with the effects of the storms.”
Vermont
• Top wind gusts: 51 mph.
• Rainfall: 11.2 inches.
Time will tell if Irene was the lone hundred-year storm in Vermont. But the weather has gotten pretty strange in the Evergreen State. Irene hovered over the state for an entire day, dumping more than twice the amount of rain than Rhode Island endured. Overflowing streams and rivers flooded homes, roads and bridges, and even washed cemeteries from the ground.
As bad as the damage was, David Kittredge, professor of forestry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the catastrophe could have caused considerably more harm. Ironically, some foresight by Congress in 1911 probably helped prevent much of the land from washing away. The Weeks Act, in response to bad logging practices, created the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. The land was protected so that trees could absorb water and reduce flooding downstream from a storm that hit 100 years later.
“The damage would have been much, much worse if those hillsides were not covered by forest,” Kittredge said.
Intense weather events, such as tropical storm Irene, Kittredge said, will be more common because of climate change. “We’re going to be glad we had forests in place to moderate the effects of (climate change)," he said.
Tree management
Experts suggest hiring arborists to prune and “thin the sail” in trees. 
“The struggle is when trees that are not cared for correctly could be a nuisance, but followed correctly you might find that it will help your property in a storm,” said Frank Mastrobuono, coordinator for the Rhode Island Urban and Community Forestry Program.  
In the months since Irene hit Rhode Island, National Grid has dramatically increased efforts to clear trees from power lines. It expects to spend another $16 million on “vegetation management” this year and next.  
Trees cover 60 percent of Rhode Island and are vital as buffer zones to protect important natural areas such as reservoirs and wetlands. When cared for, trees, especially those in residential areas, have several benefits such as providing shade and providing a buffer against property damage and flooding.
”Trees can save money instead of cost money," Mastrobuono said.