Ice storm tested hardiness, strength of all of Augusta area's trees




Where to start?

We have just experienced the worst ice storm for the area in recorded history. Freezing rain is insidious; you’re helpless to do anything about it. Trees can’t seek shelter – they have to stand there and take

In my lifetime, I remember three or four damaging ice storms – nothing, however, on the scale of this one. Unlike a tornado or even a hurricane, this damage is much more widespread. Even crews brought in for cleanup and power-line repairs remarked about the devastation being akin to that caused when Hurricane Hugo hit near Charleston, S.C., more than 20 years ago.

Noble trees such as the Eisenhower Tree at the Augusta National Golf Club were victims. The old age of many of our city trees causes them to be brittle as well as weakened by decay. Evergreens were more vulnerable to ice than deciduous trees, but even they have suffered.


BECAUSE OF MY involvement with trees over a long period, especially in the area of our urban forest, I’m naturally more sensitive to tree damage. While it’s fresh on my mind, I’ll attempt to record some observations of the weather trauma that occurred in Augusta on Feb. 12, 13 and 14.

Temperatures were a few degrees colder to the west and north of us, causing precipitation to fall in the form of sleet or snow instead of freezing rain. To the south and east, temperatures were slightly warmer, causing rain that did not freeze and cling to the leaves and branches.

Pine trees (primarily loblolly) broke or were uprooted by the excessive weight of ice accumulation. Live oaks were especially hard-hit because of their heavily leaved canopies. Magnolias, with their broad evergreen leaves, underwent extensive damage, as did lesser species such as cherry laurel, ligustrum, hollies and various other evergreen shrubs.

Deciduous trees fared much better although many of them were destroyed by falling pine boughs – dogwoods in particular. Maples fared very well, as did ash, tulip poplar, hickory, beech and the deciduous oaks – Southern red oaks, shumard, white oaks, (Darlington, water and live oaks being the exception).

Black gum and Chinese pistache likewise held up well, as did Southern red cedar. The most brittle hardwoods appear to be various elm species (including other members of that family, i.e., hackberry) as well as river birch. The makeup of climax forests tells us a lot about specie hardiness.

Close observations revealed the first structural failures occurred in trees with “included” bark – a term for V-shaped branches with bark in the crotch of the joint, unlike a strong union where limbs are an integral part of the trunk. It has been sad to note, however, that even live oaks (perhaps the sturdiest of all oaks) with significant ice buildup suffered rupture of sound wood.


FREEZING RAIN provides the perfect scenario for extensive property damage in addition to trees. Falling trees and limbs can damage buildings and automobiles, and injure people. Many broken limbs that don’t fall immediately create a dangerous and often deadly situation when wind gusts pick up, as they did Feb. 14. Broken limbs might fall for weeks after a storm.

Arborists from far and wide are busy cleaning up the mess. Unfortunately, would-be “tree people” – untrained – show up to capitalize on the disaster and frequently gouge customers.

Many people, such as myself, are hesitant to abandon a much-loved but wounded landscape tree. In many cases, however, one would be better served to swallow hard, remove the damaged tree and start anew with a healthy young plant that would last for other generations to enjoy.

One thing is certain: Tall pines should not be the tree of choice for a residential lot. Deciduous trees that have good structure and clean leaf fall in autumn not only add beauty to the landscape but are far less troublesome in the long run. What this community is going through is a post-graduate lesson on the inadvisability of a monocluture.

Variety will help sustain a viable landscape in spite of the onslaught of weather trauma.


(The writer, an Augusta businessman, is a certified arborist and is chairman of the Augusta-Richmond County Tree Commission.)



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