The fierce thunderstorm early Wednesday morning that produced wind gusts up to 87 mph did considerable damage to the community’s urban forest. Barry Burrows, Grand Island City parks superintendent, estimates that 10 percent of the trees in the parks were damaged or destroyed by the storm.
Burrows said that same estimate of damage and destruction from the storm could hold for the city’s whole urban forest.
At this point, it is only an estimate as city crews and the public are busy cleaning up the mess from the storm throughout town.
John Collins, Grand Island public works director, said there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the city’s alternative disposal sites for green material from the storm.
The collection site at 3235 S. Locust St. was near capacity Thursday and closed at noon.
By 2 p.m. Thursday, the city had secured three other collection sites for residents to dispose of trees, branches and limbs.
— 3411 W. Faidley Ave. (Abundant Life Church) — this site will be closed at 7 p.m. Friday
— 4075 W. 13th St. (east side of Westridge Middle School)
— 1800 S. Adams St. (north of Starr Elementary School)
In addition to these sites, the yard waste site at 5050 Old Potash Highway is also available for disposal of trees, branches and limbs.
Collins said the lines to the landfill were getting so long that they decided to open alternate sites for people to dispose of the green debris from the storm.
With the two original disposal sites at capacity, he said, Grand Island Public Schools has allowed the city to use Westridge Middle School and Starr Elementary as alternate disposal sites.
The new sites will be open through 7 p.m. Saturday to allow people to dispose of their downed trees, branches and limbs.
These sites are only accepting green debris. Other materials can be disposed of at the city’s transfer station or landfill.
Collins said the damage from the storm impacted the entire community; it is being compared to one that hit the city 30 years ago.
“It just overwhelmed the city’s ability to get rid of it,” he said. “The damage was pretty bad, and we will do a full, citywide assessment.”
After the storm Wednesday morning, there was debris scattered on city streets throughout town. Collins said the city’s first priority was to clear the streets and open the roads back up to traffic.
Shortly after the storm, the Grand Island Police Department told residents to stay at home for their safety because of the amount of debris and water on the streets.
The storm also damaged some of the city’s traffic signals. Collins said they got the last damaged traffic signal running by Wednesday night.
“It was just getting everything working again,” he said. “We will have to check a few things as we just Band-aided a few things to get them working again.”
There was also structural damage to city property from fallen trees, branches and limbs that is still being assessed.
An unusually wet year
Collins said flows at the city wastewater treatment plant spiked as a result of the storm.
“We normally have about 12.5 million gallons per day, but it spiked up over 20 million gallons on Wednesday,” he said.
Collins said the spike was a result of a combination of the 2 inches of rain the city received from the storm and extremely high groundwater tables. The high groundwater table is causing homeowners and businesses to experience flooded basements.
“Groundwater levels are not at record levels, but they are way higher than normal,” he said. “It is about 4 feet in places. You have had all the rains on top of that.”
Since the beginning of the year, Grand Island has received 25.07 inches, which is 6.66 inches more than the 30-year average for this time of year. Since 2000, Grand Island has averaged annual precipitation of 25.6 inches.
Quick response; long-term job
Collins praised the private sector for people’s cooperation and patience when it comes to clearing out the tons of tree material that littered Grand Island as a result of the storm.
He estimated it would take six to eight weeks to finish cleaning up the mess.
“With the trees, we haven’t gotten a final plan what to do with them,” Collins said. “Our first priority was to take care of the disaster. If we can, we will seek burn permits, but if it’s in areas where we can’t burn, we will probably get a chipper out there and grind it all up, so it is easier to haul.”
He said the city will come up with a final plan about what to do with the waste next week.
“We have all we can handle right now with the disaster recovery,” Collins said. “We will decide about finishing the cleanup next week.”
Assessing the parks
Burrows said the city’s Parks Department is concentrating its recovery efforts on the town’s bigger parks, such as Stolley and Pier parks.
“We are cleaning up and making sure the trees are safe,” he said. “We have some ‘widow makers’ or ‘hangers’ that could break away and fall.”
“Widow makers” are branches that have broken off on top of a tree but didn’t fall to the ground.
After the storm, Burrows and his staff immediately assessed the damage to the city’s parks.
“We saw a lot of devastation as far as trees that are now going to have to be completely removed,” he said.
While it is a guess at this stage to tally the total impact from the storm on the parks, Burrows said, “I think in all of our parks, we will probably remove about 150 to 200 trees. Stolley Park has a lot of trees, and if we took out 50, people would probably not notice it, but with some of the other parks if you remove 20 to 25 trees, it is going to make a difference to the urban forest in those areas.”
In assessing the damage, he said a lot of the older hackberry trees and silver maple trees were severely damaged or destroyed.
“Even some of the native black locust trees were hit pretty hard, too,” he said.
Reasons for tree loss
Burrows said many of the trees that were damaged or destroyed had co-dominant stems, which is where a tree has two or more main stems that are about the same diameter and emerge from the same location on the main trunk. As a tree grows older, the stems remain similar in size without any single one becoming dominant.
“One of the leaders (stems) will be prone to topple over because it weakens the tree,” he said.
In many cases, moisture will get into the stem and create a cavity that contributes to weakening the tree. When a tree is not pruned adequately as a sapling of its multiple stems, it weakens the tree’s structure as it grows. When a fierce wind storm hits a community, it is those trees with co-dominant stems that are damaged or destroyed.
Burrows said hackberry trees are prone to developing co-dominant stems and they are a popular tree in Grand Island. Hackberry is used as a shade tree or a boulevard tree. It establishes easily and grows well in urban landscapes because of its wide soil adaptability and its tolerance of heat, drought, salt spray, wind, ice and short-term flooding.
He said hackberry trees are good urban forest trees. Some of the hackberry trees that were damaged or destroyed during the storm were probably in a stage of decline and may have had weakened roots systems.
Redesigning the urban forest
After the cleanup, Burrows said, they will re-evaluate how to redesign the city’s urban forest.
“There may be places where we will not replant any trees, but we will put trees in other spots that will benefit the urban forest and the park users a little better,” he said. “We will put in better trees — maybe more hardwoods that the Nebraska Forest Service is recommending that will withstand some of our different climate conditions that we are starting to see trending, such as storms with higher winds and periods of hotter weather or large rains.”
Also, Burrows said, the high groundwater table in areas of Grand Island may have softened the root system of some of the trees, making them more vulnerable to the damaging winds from Wednesday’s thunderstorm.
The community’s loss of trees from the storm is considerable, especially for homeowners, and maybe in the millions of dollars.
A mature tree can have an appraised value of $1,000 to $10,000, according to the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers. It takes years for trees to reach mature size and they provide homeowners benefits when it’s time to sell their property. That also doesn’t count the environmental benefits trees provide a community, such as shade, limiting noise pollution and absorbing air pollution.