Isaias Aftermath: Dealing with Wind and Storm-Damaged Trees 

A large tree limb fallen in a residential street, flanked by orange traffic cones.
Damaged trees can present serious safety hazards, so caution is key for homeowners. (Tom Breen/UConn Photo)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020 was a striking example of one of those “severe weather events” we get from time to time in Connecticut. Tropical Storm Isaias is being compared in the media to Super Storm Sandy and other severe storms in 2011 and 2012 in terms of power outages and other impacts from tree failures. Severe winds, downpours, and tornado threats all were part of the wicked conditions that ripped limbs from and uprooted trees, downed power lines, and damaged buildings and vehicles. Many parts of our state remain without electrical service while crews clean up downed limbs and restore the lines.  

For my part, because of the sudden and severe nature of the winds, and the near-continuous rain of leaves and branches falling, I was as nervous I ever remember being about a storm event and the potential for damage to my humble little house from trees and limbs. Sure enough, one large limb did get ripped off and came down about 20 feet from where my car was parked. While there remains, of course, a mess of smaller twigs, leaves and branches, there’s no real property damage, thank goodness, but it was close. The storm seemed to be over almost as quick as it began, and now, just like many folks around the state, I’m faced with a clean-up task. It’s not a real problem for me; that broken limb is at the edge of the woods and will make a neat little pile of firewood. I’ll be able to salvage the tree it came from and make even more firewood and a couple of decent oak saw-logs. 

For many people, however, the task of cleaning up storm-damaged trees is not as straightforward and simple. Storm-damaged trees are fraught with abundant problems, dangers, and risks. Cleaning up and salvaging downed, partially down, or damaged trees can be among the most dangerous and risky activities an individual can undertake. It cannot be emphasized enough that without a thorough knowledge of equipment capabilities, safety procedures, and methods for dealing with physically stressed trees, an individual should never undertake this type of work on their own. The very characteristics that make the wood from trees great structural material can turn leaning, hanging, or downed trees into dangerous “booby-traps.” Damaged trees can spring, snap, and move in mysterious ways when people cut them, and can cause serious and life-threatening injuries. Just because your neighbor or relative owns a chainsaw, it doesn’t make them qualified to tackle a large tree that is uprooted or broken. Contacting a licensed arborist, or certified forest practitioner with the right equipment, training, and insurance is the best approach for addressing the cleanup and salvage of storm damaged trees, and for avoiding potential injury, death, liability, and financial loss. 

That said, there are a few things a homeowner can do about trees that are damaged and/or causing other damage around a homesite: 

  • First, from a safe distance, note the location of any and all downed utility lines. Always assume that downed wires are charged and do not approach them. Notify the utility company of the situation and do nothing further until they have cleared the area.  
  • Don’t forget to LOOK UP! While you may be fascinated with examining a downed limb, there may be another one hanging up above by a splinter, ready to drop at any time. 
  • Once you are confident that no electrocution or other physical danger exists, you can visually survey the scene and perhaps document it with written descriptions and photographs. This will be particularly helpful if a property insurance claim is to be filed. Proving auto or structure damage after a downed tree has been removed is easier if a photo record has been made. 
  • Take steps to flag off the area or otherwise warn people that potential danger exists. 
  • Remember that even if a downed tree or limb appears stable, it will be subject to many unnatural stresses and tensions. If you are not familiar with these conditions, do not attempt to cut the tree or limb yourself. Cutting even small branches can cause pieces to release tension and spring back, or cause weight and balance to shift unexpectedly with the potential for serious injury. Call a professional for assistance.  
  • Under no circumstances, even in the least potentially dangerous situation, ever operate, or allow anyone on your property to operate, a chainsaw without thorough knowledge of safe procedures and proper safety equipment, including, at the minimum, hardhat, chaps, eye and hearing protection, safety-toe boots and gloves. A chainsaw injury is not something you put a Band-Aid on and go back to work. It will be a life-altering experience. 

An assessment of the damage to individual trees, or more widespread damage in a forest setting, is best undertaken by an individual with professional expertise. Homeowners should contact an arborist to examine trees in yards or near to structures, roads, or power lines.  A Certified Forester is qualified to evaluate damage in the woods to trees and stands and advise landowners about the suitability of salvage or cleanup operations. The CT-DEEP Forestry Division can provide information about contacting a certified forester or licensed arborist. Check the DEEP website: https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Forestry/Forestry or call 860-424-3630. The Connecticut Tree Protective Association maintains a listing of licensed arborists at their web pages: www.ctpa.org

While a nice tidy pile of firewood from a tree that was damaged in a storm may be the silver lining, it is not worth the risk of injury to yourself or someone else when tackling a very dangerous task without the proper knowledge, equipment, or preparation.