On Sunday morning, April 19, 2020, a mighty and underestimated severe thunderstorm blew across Coosa and Tallapoosa counties and other select portions of Central Alabama. In an instant, numerous home landscapes; a campground; backyards; front yards; orchards; forest settings;and roadsides were abruptly uprooted, transformed and damaged. A powerful straight-line wind punched the area and broke tree limbs; pushed over mighty and massive oaks,;snapped historic pines with ease; flattened generational pecan trees; and scarred the natural landscape. Luckily, only a few houses and buildings were badly damaged by the storm, but many beautiful shaded home landscapes were abruptly changed.

Now that the chainsaws are silent and much of the debris has been cleaned up and hauled away, attention turns to evaluating the yard and property. The obvious realization after such a storm event is that what once may have been a shady lot is now in full sun with the trees gone.  Such drastic changes, indeed, will have long-term effects.

If not able to grow grass in the past, that former shady spot likely could now. Consider planting grass or laying sod, if necessary, to hold the soil intact and cover bare spots.  

Sensitive and shade loving plants may become stressed and suffer in their new hot and sunny environment. Attention will need to be given to them to see if they adapt. Add mulch and provide additional water this spring and summer to help relieve the stressful conditions. 

On the bright side, if there is one, do take this as an opportunity to replant and create a new landscape.  

Losing large, old trees in the yard can be heartbreaking, and though they can never be fully replaced in our lifetime, homeowners might be able to replant.

The quick response to that advice often is, “No, don’t want any more trees!”

I can respect that but do keep in mind how beneficial and valuable trees are near the home.  Not only do trees increase property value and help sell homes faster, but also, studies have shown that trees help to save money on energy costs and slow water runoff, which prevents soil erosion. In addition, trees are just beautiful and are the most cherished asset of the home landscape.

It might be wise investment. 

If you do wish to plant a new tree or two around the home or property, first choose a proper location that is safely away from the house in case of future storms. No need to go through this again and have the new tree cause future damage.

Be sure to choose the right tree for you. Consider the results you are trying to achieve. Shade, spring flowers and/or fall color? Most homeowners want an instant landscape and fast growing trees to replace what was lost. Some fast growing trees to consider are yellow poplar, loblolly pine, sycamore, red maple, crape myrtle and willow oak.            

Now that the storm has passed, the next extremely important task is to evaluate the remaining trees in the yard. It is wonderful news that you still have trees that were not affected or badly damaged. But as I have written in the past, it’s advisable to look up and examine those remaining trees closely. Storm damage is much different than dieback symptoms commonly seen in slowly dying trees.  

From just riding around in the area, I have noticed many trees still standing with snapped and missing tops, large broken limbs and hanging branches. Minor broken branches may not be a big risk, but it’s hard for trees to cope with major breaks or cracks h. Once damaged, these trees will likely take years to fully recover.

Trees with only a few broken limbs are seldom a concern, but noticeable defects could lead to decay, hazards and failure. Broken limbs are even more serious because they require pruning to ensure minimal incidences of decay and insect attacks. Trees that have lost large limbs or several limbs need to be assessed with thought to the trees’ future structure stability, as decay is likely to occur as a result of such damage.

In general, the younger the tree, the more easily it will cope with storm damage and continue to thrive; however, wounds on older trees tend to be larger, and tree growth is slower and less vigorous. As trees mature, loss of large branches increases incidents of decay, leading to future structural problems, as well as contributing to tree decline from loss of leaves.

Hangers are limbs that have broken but remain loosely attached to a portion of the tree. The easiest of these to see are those that hang vertically to the ground. A suspended branch is a limb that broke off completely, but during the fall was caught by another branch before it could reach the ground. Hangers and suspended branches should not be underestimated, especially if there are targets below them. Trees should be inspected carefully for hangers and suspended branches, especially after a storm or high winds. Carefully remove these hazards before they complete the fall and cause additional damage or injury.

Don’t forget to inspect the remaining trees’ roots, as well. High winds often cause trees to rock, severing the roots and, in extreme cases, leading to whole tree failure. The most prominent sign of root failure is a leaning tree. Because a tree leans doesn’t necessarily mean it would fall, but it certainly warrants closer examination. If you have a leaning tree, look for signs of decay and root instability. One indicator of a critical root defect is soil mounding on the opposite side of the lean. A tree that has recently shifted from its normal vertical position will require immediate action.

One final thought: It is baffling to find a tree has fallen from a storm and yet another nearby is still standing, having escaped the dangerous forces of nature. Many of the downed trees that fell or split during the April storms and high winds already had hidden structural problems. Many large and mature oaks and pines specifically showed inner decay and rot or other major defects. Some may have had root rot. These weak points, coupled with advanced age, greatly increased the probability of trees falling or breaking in the direct force winds of a storm.

There are three simple rules toward having safer trees: regular systematic inspection; treating problems quickly; and removing trees when their risks outweigh their value. 

As a community, we will continue to weather the storms of life that come our way. The sun soon comes out and almost always brings helping hands and folks who need them together. Be ready and stay safe.

~ Shane Harris is the Tallapoosa County Extension Coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Contact him at 256-825-1050 or visit aces.edu/Tallapoosa.