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Historic tree falls in Kent Island tornado

A large Southern red oak tree, a local landmark, taken down by a storm early Monday lies along Romancoke Road in Stevensville, MD.
A large Southern red oak tree, a local landmark, taken down by a storm early Monday lies along Romancoke Road in Stevensville, MD. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

STEVENSVILLE — Some of Stephanie LaFollette's fondest childhood memories were made under a towering Southern red oak tree in her family's front yard.

During hot Stevensville summers, the neighborhood kids would stand under its 102-foot canopy for shade. In the spring, they'd marvel as it bloomed. And in the fall, it shed enough leaves to fill a swimming pool, she said.

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"You could practically bounce off of the leaf piles," said LaFollette, 52. "We would drag a picnic table from the backyard to the front yard, and dive into the pile of leaves like we were diving into a pool."

In the early hours of Monday, a tornado with winds of up to 135 mph ravaged Kent Island. Meteorologists said the cyclone formed in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay about 1:30 a.m., and came ashore in the Bay City community. It moved northeast toward Stevensville, ripping off roofs, knocking down utility poles and leaving thousands without power.

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It also brought down the Southern red oak that's served as a Kent Island "landmark" for generations, LaFollette said.

LaFollette said her family is grateful the gigantic tree fell toward Romancoke Road instead of into the house where her 75-year-old mother still lives.

"It's a bittersweet thing," she said. "Nothing lasts forever, as they say."

Residents, emergency responders and contractors worked Tuesday to clean up in the aftermath of the tornado. Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said it was still too early to tell exactly how much damage the tornado had caused.

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Delmarva Power reported that electricity knocked out by the storm had been restored to 8,700 customers; officials hoped to restore power to about 70 remaining homes by the end of the day.

The only injury reported to Queen Anne's County officials from the storm was a "puncture wound," a spokesman said. The injured man was treated at University of Maryland Shore Emergency Center at Queenstown and released, a hospital spokesman said.

LaFollette said neighbors have been stopping by since the storm to say how sorry they are about the loss of the tree. She said her parents bought the lot 44 years ago, and the Southern red oak was a big reason why.

The 66-foot-tall tree was registered with Maryland's Big Tree Program and listed as the largest of its kind in Queen Anne's County. LaFollette said her mother always got a kick out of that designation.

Meteorologists said the tornado that tore though Kent Island was one of the most destructive to hit Maryland in years.

John Bennett of the Big Tree Program said he measured the oak just last month. It was starting to show signs of decline, he said, but that "doesn't mean it was ready to go."

Bennett said he doesn't know how old the tree was — it's hollow, making a ring count impossible.

Tree experts in the area estimate it was at least 200 years old. LaFollette said she thinks it was between 350 and 375.

Robert Bullen, owner of Kent Island Tree Service, grew up on the island and said his grandfather would tell stories about the tree — just as his grandparents did before him.

"They all remember it," he said, "and it was big then."

Bullen said it's sad to see the tree go, but he knows the damage could have been worse.

Jay Johns, an arborist representative with Bartlett Tree Experts, said the loss of this tree — and the hundreds of others knocked down in the storm — will change the area.

"Everybody knew that tree," said Johns, who has lived on Kent Island for 35 years. "Without that tree and all the other large, mature trees, the landscape of Bay City will be changed for a very long time."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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