Region's tree-lined colleges confront damage from Halloween storm

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 10:40

This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2012 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By REBECCA EVERETT
Staff Wrtier

SOUTH HADLEY—Last Oct. 30, Paul Breen, who's in charge of facility management at Mount Holyoke College, drove around the grounds evaluating the damage caused by the freakish snowstorm the previous day. "It took your breath away," Breen said, recalling the massive trees and branches that had snapped like twigs under the heavy snow.

Two and a half months later, Breen and his grounds crew are still dealing with the havoc the storm wreaked on the school's treescape. Breen says 90 percent of the 1,100 trees on the core campus sustained some damage, and just over 50 will have to be removed.

Campuses around the Pioneer Valley are in various stages of recovery since the October storm. Following 2,607 hours of labor, the tree work at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is nearly complete, according to college spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons. At Smith College, landscape manager Jay Girard said work on campus trees is only half done and the college will need to plant close to 70 trees this year to make up for the losses.

In the weeks after the storm, college crews cleared major debris and cut down "hangers," or broken branches suspended in trees. Now they are focusing on more thorough pruning to give the damaged trees a better chance to survive the winter.

College officials are also making plans to replace the trees that were not salvageable. Smith, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges and UMass each reported losing between 40 and 50 trees, and Amherst College lost close to 80, according to grounds supervisor Robert Shea.

"I've been here 34 years and seen a lot of storms," Shea said of the loss. "This one takes the cake."

Smith College

Girard said landscaping crews have completed 50 percent of the pruning on the 378 trees on the Smith campus that were damaged. The lack of snowfall in the two months following the October storm has been helpful, he said, but staff will "work through the winter, whether it snows or not."

Pruning is the best way to help a damaged tree recover, Girard said. "If you leave a broken-off and damaged stub, it can decay and rot the tree. We do a clean cut at the nearest branch collar, or node, and that helps it to heal."

He said that oaks, which are among the strongest trees, were the most heavily damaged on campus because they still had most of their leaves when the storm hit, meaning that their branches were more weighed down by the snow. Thirty of the trees on Smith's list of damaged trees are oaks, and some are over 100 years old.

The college is already planning how to replace the 50 or so trees that have been or will be removed due to storm damage. While Girard said the school usually plants about a dozen trees each year, this year's plans call for almost six times that many.

The varieties of the replacement trees will depend on what is available in the Smith College nursery or other nurseries, Girard said. Some of the rarer specimens may not be easy to find.

"Planting is probably going to be a two-year process, but we'll start as soon as the ground thaws," he said. "We have such a small window to plant in the spring before commencement, we might hire outside contractors to help."

Amherst College

Amherst College removed 80 trees due to storm damage.

Workers evaluated and cut down trees that were more than 80 percent destroyed, but the number could rise, according to Shea.

"There's probably another 20 or so that we'll prune up and try to save, but if they don't do well over the winter, we'll probably take them down at a later date," Shea said.

Shea said more than 400 of the 920 trees on the main campus were damaged and required pruning. The work is more than 90 percent complete, he said. His staff spent 1,285 hours cleaning up, including 85 hours of overtime in the days immediately after the storm.

The college also spent close to $80,000 to hire three private contractors to help remove hangers, he said. A massive brush pile on the south end of campus still needs to be chipped, at a projected cost of $28,000. "It's more brush than we would normally get in 10 years," Shea said.

Shea said the grounds crew is currently "sizing up our needs" in terms of replanting. "I can't say exactly what we'll plant, but it will probably be around 40 or 50 this spring," he said.

Hampshire College

Larry Archey, acting director of facilities and grounds at Hampshire College, estimated that 75 trees were damaged on the core part of campus and another 40 trees have been or will be removed as a result of storm damage. "We only finished the first round of pruning along the roads and walkways - for safety - a week ago," he said. "Our concern is that more bad weather over the winter could bring down more branches."

Archey said that crews put in approximately 1,000 hours on storm clean-up. Like the grounds supervisors at the other four colleges in the Valley, Archey is working on insurance reports detailing the cost of the storm, including lost property, hours worked and contracting with private companies. He said Hampshire College will get "some help" from its insurance company, but college officials said it was too early to estimate the amount.

Archey said the college is working with Berkshire Design Group of Northampton to come up with a landscaping plan for the spring that includes planting new trees. "I imagine we will net plant more than we take down," he said.

UMass

Following 2,607 hours of labor by the university's landscapers and other staff to clear debris and prune trees, the work is nearly complete, said Fitzgibbons, of the UMass media relations office.

"Snow and ice storms are part of living in New England," he said. "They usually weed out the weaker trees, but this storm was different because big, healthy trees were some of the worst-damaged."

Of the approximately 2,500 trees on the interior of UMass campus, almost half were damaged enough to require attention, Fitzgibbons said. Fifty of the trees had to be removed.

Fitzgibbons said that in the next few months landscape architects from the Campus Planning Office will consult with physical plant workers to determine how many trees to replant.

Mount Holyoke

Breen said it took until mid-December for staff and private contractors to complete the first phase of pruning, which included removing hangers from the more than 800 trees that needed it.

But the work is far from done. "The next phase is completing a more in-depth assessment of which trees need more pruning, cabling or need to come down," he said. Cabling, which involves wrapping cables around a tree's forked branches, can help prevent a tree from splitting, Breen said. The assessment is currently about 20 percent done, he said.

Replanting is big part of the college's "get well plan," as Breen called it. "We'll make an effort to replant for everything that came down," he said. "And this can be an opportunity to re-evaluate. Maybe we can put in a better tree in a better spot."