When The Bough Breaks

When The Bough Breaks

Throughout the Bethesda area, beautiful trees are turning deadly

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When the tree limb crashed down on my head, my first thought was for Claire, my 2-year-old niece. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her, still in my arms, and hear her terrified screams. The pain in my head was literally blinding.

When my sight returned moments later, I wasn’t able to turn my head toward Claire—I could only look downward at my blood-splattered legs. Then someone was yelling, “Call 911!” and people were hovering over us and lifting off the limb.

It was a microburst—an enormous black cloud with whipping winds—that had blown over us in minutes, catching us, like so many others, under a lush canopy of trees.

A frantic ambulance ride and hospital visit later, Claire had 12 stitches from the jagged limb that had fallen more than a hundred feet, puncturing her chest and causing abrasions on her arm and leg. I had a concussion, six staples in my head and a chipped front tooth where my jaw apparently snapped closed from the impact. We were both put on antibiotics because there was lichen on the tree bark they pulled out of our wounds. But for the most part, we were OK.

Four people in the metro area were killed by falling trees in that same microburst in 2010. One of them, Michelle Humanick, was a friend of mine who was pulling off the Beltway to avoid the storm when a large tree struck her car in College Park. A warm, vibrant woman, she left behind a husband and two daughters, ages 1 and 4.

That tragedy resembled another just a year earlier in Chevy Chase. Kelly Murray and her 7-year-old daughter, Sloane, died after a falling tree limb hit their minivan on Connecticut Avenue during a storm. Murray also left a young family behind: a husband and five daughters, ages 10 months to 12 years.  

On average, 31 people die every year in the U.S. from wind-related tree failures, according to a study conducted between 1995 and 2007 by Kent State University professor Thomas Schmidlin.  In the past three years, 14 people have been killed by falling trees or limbs in the metro area—six of them in Montgomery County. On a single day last June, four local people died from falling trees, two in their homes and two in their cars. Two more died from tree failures in Maryland during Hurricane Sandy in late October.

Given the right combination of rain and wind, the enormous trees so beloved in suburban neighborhoods are turning deadly.

In Josh Nadler’s view, urban planning is partially to blame. Nadler is the arborist for the University of Maryland, where he helps care for more than 8,000 trees on the College Park campus. In urban areas, Nadler says, “we are expecting trees to do things that they don’t do naturally. We’re putting trees in little concrete islands with a little pile of soil on either side…[and] reducing the overall root plate.”  

A walk around my neighborhood in Chevy Chase, D.C., illustrates his point. The streets are lined with giant oaks, beeches, locusts and maples wedged between the road and sidewalks. Some have no grass around them. It seems impossible that such a little patch of soil could support a 100-foot tree with limbs and branches dozens of feet across.

Given a relatively shallow root structure—about 95 percent have their roots in the top 18 to 24 inches of soil, according to Nadler—these trees are vulnerable in heavy downpours. Rain that saturates the ground can quickly loosen the roots’ grip on the soil, increasing the risk that the trees will blow over in strong winds.

Even healthy trees are vulnerable to high winds, according to Lew Bloch, a consulting arborist who has testified in dozens of local and national cases involving tree failures. During the 40 years he owned tree service and landscaping businesses in Potomac and Chevy Chase, Bloch learned that “healthy trees blow over before sick ones because they have thick, healthy foliage,” which creates a sail-like effect.

That’s apparently what happened to the Van Sant family in Chevy Chase last June. A massive tree crashed into their Leland Street house during the derecho, knocking off the chimney and crushing a side porch as well as three cars parked in the driveway.

John Van Sant and his 23-year-old daughter, Elinore, narrowly missed being hit while inside the house. “There was a huge crash, a wild noise, breaking glass. …It was terrifying,” Elinore says. “We ran into the basement because there were trees coming down all around. We weren’t sure where the tree was and what was going to come down next.”

With their normal exits blocked by limbs, they had to cut their way out of the house with a chainsaw. “The porch roof was now at eye level,” John Van Sant says. “We opened the front door and looked into a sea of green leaves where my car had been. I looked out the garage door window and saw the leaves extended over a second car.”

Three months later, parts of their home were still in disarray. Meanwhile, they’ve had to deal with the cost of reconstruction. Homeowners insurance and car policies covered about 80 percent of their losses, according to John’s wife, Elizabeth. But they estimate that $20,000 will come out of their own pocket.

“If it had been lightning or vandalism it would have been [entirely] covered,” Elizabeth says. But “not wind.”

The tree that hit the Van Sants’ home was rooted on their property. But often the threat comes from trees on neighbors’ land or on property maintained by local or state government. And that’s where things get complicated.

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