Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Ice-storm tree damage like toll from hurricane


EASTON -- Foresters estimate that up to 40 percent of the trees in a band extending from Southern Maryland across the mid-Eastern Shore incurred "severe damage" during a rare, extended ice storm earlier this month.

"The aftermath resembles hurricane damage," said John Jastrzembski, regional forester for Southern Maryland. Clean-up efforts in parks and along roads could take up to a year in some areas, he said, because the destruction was so extensive.

"It looks like somebody came along through the woods with a hacksaw and topped all the trees," said Cindy Towers, of Caroline County's emergency management team.

Late Friday, Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked President Clinton to declare Maryland a "major disaster" area as a result of a series of ice storms that caused an estimated $28 million in damage throughout the state.

A disaster declaration would make local governments -- and several nonprofit utility companies -- eligible for federal disaster funds.

By far the most serious concentrated damage seems to have occurred in a three-day storm that deposited a 20-mile-wide veneer of heavy ice on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay.

More than two weeks after that storm, residents and public works crews in many places in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore are still trying to extricate themselves from tangles of broken branches and toppled trees.

Most trees that escaped severe damage -- meaning multiple or major limbs missing, or tops snapped off -- had at least minor limb breaks, say those familiar with the area.

Within the Southern Maryland/Eastern Shore "ice belt," one Maryland state park near Denton -- Martinak -- has been closed indefinitely because damage is so severe. Although crews are working to clear enough debris in the 107-acre park to lessen the threat to public safety, manager John Ohler said that reopening may take several months.

In Caroline County, Public Works Director Charles Emerson said work crews will stack logs by the side of road as free firewood. Talbot County government has 60 to 80 truckloads of wood chips it wants to give away, said County Administrator Blenda Armistead.

Calvert County government quickly exhausted local contractors' capabilities and sought wood-chippers and other services from elsewhere. Local newspapers are filled with advertisements for chain saws, chippers and tree services.

The ice storm, which swept east across the state Feb. 9 and lasted through Feb. 11, downed power lines and cut off electricity to tens of thousands of rural and semirural utility customers -- requiring the help of work crews from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to restore service, in some cases a week later.

National Weather Service meteorologist Fred Davis likened the storm to fast-moving summer squalls that frequently cross the same parts of Maryland. The difference, he said, was that the ice belt resulted from a combination of freezing ground temperatures and rain.

"We had the same temperatures in other parts of the state," said Mr. Davis. "But the precipitation there was already frozen."

A number of residents agree that it was the worst storm of its kind in at least 30 years; some senior citizens say it's been much longer than 30 years.

Extensive damage

The full impact the storm had on trees is only now being realized because most recovery efforts were directed toward restoring power and clearing roads of ice and snow.

And what local officials see is eye-opening.

Tree limbs of all sizes still clutter yards and roadsides throughout the region. Hundreds of branches, broken but still clinging to trunks and larger branches by strips of bark, dangle in the wind -- dangerously in places. Jagged trunks point toward the sky. Piles of limbs and brush line curbs and road shoulders.

Hardwoods, such as oaks, gums, beeches and other deciduous trees, experienced the worst damage, said Eastern Shore forester Kip Powers, But fast-growing, shallow-rooted Virginia pines cracked, split or fell nearly everywhere, as well.

Mr. Powers said his colleagues think that when damage is finally assessed 40 percent of the ice belt's trees will have been affected. He and other foresters agree that the potential for fire could be great in the spring and summer if fallen trees and branches are left to rot.

"We're going to have a terrible problem," said Mr. Jastrzembski. "Those branches are going to be kindling waiting for a spark."

In Talbot County alone, early estimates are that costs of recovering from the storm will exceed $1 million in public money, said Edward Mullikin, emergency management director.

No quick solution

Richard F. Colburn, town manager of Federalsburg, said area officials hope that federal and state emergency money can be tapped to help county and municipal governments defray recovery expenses. Nothing has been offered yet, however.

No one knows how much it will cost to collect the timber and to take care of trees that owners wish to protect from disease and rot. Nor is anyone making an estimate of how many trees may ultimately die because of the storm damage. But everyone agrees on one thing: There's no quick solution.

"Grass will probably be growing and green before we get all this cleaned up," said James Cheezum, public works chief for St. Michael's in Talbot County.

Tree cutters aren't the only busy folks in the wake of the storm. Insurance agents have been deluged with calls from property owners filing claims on storm-related damage.

William P. Griffin Jr., an agent with Bartlett, Griffin & Vermilye Inc. in Easton, said his agency has handled 150 claims in two weeks.

"That's a lot for us," he said. "We've been so busy with this that we're behind on everything else."

Mr. Griffin, who described some storm-ravaged properties as resembling areas that have been bombed, said most homeowners are requesting payments for debris removal.

Cleanup bills

Remarkably, few structures were heavily damaged. Even so, the storm will be costly for many property owners. Mr. Griffin said most policies pay a maximum of $500 for getting rid of debris.

"We have people out there facing cleanup bills of $3,000 to $5,000," he said.

Private contractors are busy, too. Allen Butler, owner of Wye Tree Experts Inc. in Talbot County, said his firm has four months of storm-related tree work ahead. The demand for tree work is so great, he said, that some unlicensed and inexperienced crews are trying to cash in.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad