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'Perfect storm' ruined 1,000 trees in New York's Central Park

Rare and heavy October snow caught the foliage in late bloom, and caretakers are scrambling to clean things up for the weekend's annual marathon.

November 04, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • A thousand trees in New York's Central Park fell victim to a freak October snowstorm that caught them in late bloom. Crews are scrambling to clean things up for this weekend's marathon.
A thousand trees in New York's Central Park fell victim to a freak October… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — Central Park is a little sunnier now than it was a week ago. And that's not a good thing.

A thousand trees died in last Saturday's freak autumn snowstorm. It stripped away the leafy canopy of some of the park's most photographed areas, like Literary Walk, the wide interior boulevard known for its mature elms and stately oaks.

But with 47,000 runners showing up Sunday for the New York City Marathon, there was no time this week to mourn or memorialize one of the worst natural disasters to strike a park considered the city's public jewel.

Work crews were still scrambling at midweek to cart away mounds of fallen branches and cut off dangling limbs to avoid further calamity. The loss of hundreds of London planes and pin oaks planted as long as 90 years ago, and young birches put in the ground just last spring, was calamity enough.

"You're seeing a lot more sky than you did a week ago," said Neil Calvanese, who has worked for three decades for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the park. "You also got a lot of more people working very hard right now to get ready for the marathon."

The New York marathon, the largest in the world, includes every borough and makes a mess of traffic. It also draws 200,000 people to Central Park, many eager for a glimpse of the finish line on the southwestern edge.

That's where last Saturday's nor'easter hit the park hardest.

"We're calling this the 'perfect storm,'" said Calvanese, who is vice president of operations for the conservancy. The combination of late-blooming foliage and an early snow took out about 4% of the park's trees, all on the south end. The north part, for peculiar weather reasons, was hardly affected.

"The London planes were just fully foliated," Calvanese said of the tree known for its big, wide leaf. "They were as full as they are in July."

Then the October storm forced January weather on July foliage.

First, there was a cold downpour, then heavy snow and intense winds. The wet snow accumulated on the lush greenery of the upper branches, causing them to collapse. If the leaves had already peaked with fall color, as they usually do by marathon Sunday, they would have been more frail and snow couldn't have accumulated.

"Some of our hawthorns were just beaming with this orange fruit," Calvanese said. "They all snapped out and we had to get rid of those."

By midweek, 600 trees had been cut down or marked for removal after the race. The conservancy is estimating the overall loss will be 1,000.

"A tree that is damaged now has to come out if it has large wounds," Calvanese said. "While it may be structurally sound now, five years down the road you get a column of decay and it becomes unsound."

In addition to the usual frenetic preparation for the race, more than 100 crews were clearing the lower part of the park. Tree carnage — stumps, branches and mountains of wood chips — was piled in strategic spots waiting for removal. Saws buzzed along the southern loop. Grapple hooks on huge wood chippers were constantly feeding them branches.

Under a blue sky and with the weather getting unseasonably warm, the park was also filled with runners in matching track suits surveying the race route. This time, they were also checking out the yellow caution tape around clusters of trees where workers in bucket trucks were cutting dangling limbs.

"We have no doubt the city will make it safe for us," said Giovanni Vannucci, 27, from Florence, Italy, who had come with his brother and a friend to run the 26.2-mile course. "It's the greatest part of Manhattan, so they have to take care of it."

Nearby pedicab driver Abdoulaye Coulibaly was eating his lunch and considering the storm's impact on the park — and on his business this weekend.

"It's just messy," said Coulibaly, a West African who has been pedaling tourists through the park for three years. "By Sunday, they'll clean it up and we'll have a lot of business here. One can only hope."

It has been a difficult few years for the park's 23,551 trees. In August 2009, a storm came whipping off the Hudson River to the north end, and in less than 30 minutes took down 500 trees and damaged hundreds more. About a year later, a limb snapped off and killed a 6-month-old child and seriously injured the mother. Then last summer Hurricane Irene swatted down 125 trees.

While the destruction is never welcome, Calvanese said it could help the park evolve in new and, better yet, old ways. The original vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the park in the middle of the 19th century, was of open landscape framed by majestic trees. By the middle of the 20th century, former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was adding trees along pathways while others further altered Olmsted's design with additional plantings.

Calvanese predicted the conservancy would respect the original intent when it looked at how to recover from the storms.

"There could be a silver lining to all this," he said, adding wearily: "But we have certainly had it with storms in this park."

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