Saturday, August 22, 2009

Storm Toppled Scores of Trees in Central Park

August 19, 2009, 12:14 pm — Updated: 5:05 pm -->
Storm Toppled Scores of Trees in Central Park
By Sewell Chan AND Sarah Maslin Nir

Monika Graff for The New York Times

Updated, 4:15 p.m. More than 100 trees were toppled and hundreds more were damaged in Central Park during the fierce thunderstorm that moved over New York City on Tuesday night.

It was the most severe destruction that the park’s trees had sustained in at least 30 years, according to officials at the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park.

“Central Park has been devastated,” Adrian Benepe, the city parks commissioner, said in an interview on Wednesday morning. “It created more damage than I’ve seen in 30 years of working in the parks.”

Mr. Benepe added: “Some areas have had an almost total loss of trees. The Great Hill, the area around West 106th Street, has very large American elm trees. In that one area, several dozen trees went down.”

As work crews fanned out across the park, officials said they were still evaluating the destruction wrought by the storm, which brought wind gusts of 70 miles an hour and dumped up to three-quarters of an inch of rain over parts of the city.

“The damage was so severe and so widespread that we are simultaneously cleaning up and assessing the damage and trying to cordon off areas so that people aren’t hit by falling limbs,” Mr. Benepe said.

The storm was part of a weather system that formed over New Jersey and quickly moved eastward.

“It seems like Central Park was essentially the ground zero,” said David Wally, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Upton, N.Y., on Long Island. “Manhattan, the Bronx and the northern part of Queens were the primary recipients of the severe weather.”

Remarkably, despite the physical damage, including the closing of several roads that were blocked by fallen trees, there were no reports of anyone injured around the city.

At the height of the storm, shortly after 10 p.m., the city’s Office of Emergency Management reported that more than 100 trees had been felled, with the damage concentrated on the west side of the park near streets in the 90s.

The storm caused damage elsewhere in the region. Large tree limbs fell onto the Cross Island Parkway in Queens, blocking a lane of the Utopia Parkway Exit, and onto Pelham Parkway, near Co-op City in the Bronx. Penny-sized hail was reported in the East Tremont section of the Bronx and in Hoboken, N.J.

In Central Park, most of the trees fell in one direction — east — having been knocked over by winds coming from the west. The damage could be seen across a broad swath of the park.

A large London Plane tree blocked the East Drive, near 95th Street. Fallen limbs and branches forced the temporary closings of the Tennis Center, between 94th and 96th Streets on the West Drive; the North Meadow ball fields; and the Conservatory Garden, at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street.

Several other parks — Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem and Randall’s Island among them — also experienced major tree damage.

Forestry crews from the Parks Department began doing damage assessment at 2 a.m. Wednesday. The conservancy is bringing in privately contracted crews on an emergency basis, and by Thursday, the Parks Department expects to have 10 crews from private tree companies working in Central Park.

Despite the intense damage, the storm, which lasted between about 9:55 and 10:30, was not a tornado, Mr. Wally said. The damage in Central Park, he said, was caused by strong, damaging, straight-line winds, also known as downbursts or microbursts, not the violently rotating columns of air characteristic of tornadoes.

The whipping wind and driving rain also forced the early closing, around 10 p.m. Tuesday, of the inaugural night of the seventh annual Central Park Film Festival, said Kate Sheleg, a spokeswoman of the Central Park Conservancy. Ms. Sheleg, along with more than 2,400 other people attending the film screening, beat a hasty retreat as the storm clouds opened up over them.

“When I went out last night, there was a very distinct odor of shredded fresh trees, and it’s not a good smell,” Mr. Benepe, who went out to Riverside Park after the storm, said on Wednesday. “It’s a smell of living trees that had been blown apart. To me it looked like pictures I had seen of war zones, of trees I had seen that had been hit with artillery shells. Some were split in half, halfway up their trunk, others completely uprooted. If you love trees, as we do, it’s emotionally upsetting. You have personal relationships with certain trees and now they are gone.”

Though the storm has passed, there is still a danger to park-goers from falling limbs — a problem that already caused critical injury to a man walking through the park last month.

Ms. Sheleg said that work crews were canvassing the area on Wednesday and inspecting the condition of the park’s more than 24,000 trees for loose and dangerous branches.

Neil Calvanese, vice president for operations at the Central Park Conservancy, said on Wednesday that he had been out since 5:30 a.m., surveying the damage.

Some of the trees — pin oaks, red elms, tulip trees — dated as far back as the turn of the last century.

“We had a wonderful chestnut at 100th Street and Central Park West,” Mr. Calvanese said. “That’s been devastated; that will have to come down.”

He added, “I’ve been here since 1981, and we lived through Hurricane Gloria, ice storms and noreasters.” None of those events, he said, had caused this much destruction.

“We had some magnificent beech trees in the North Meadow,” he said. “Two of them that are going to come down — a pair of lindens that are going to have to come down. I want to put a positive note on that. A park is always evolving, that’s the nature of the park. We’ll get another generation of trees ready to come on, the park does evolve.”