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Monday, June 27, 2011

Tornado vs Trees, Western Massachusetts, June 1, 2011

Western Massachusetts (USA) experienced the fury of an EF3 tornado on June 1, 2011. Tornadoes are rare in this part of the country, thankfully, so this was quite an event for us. We're just not used to this kind of abuse. Sadly, four people lost their lives in this storm, and hundreds of homes, businesses, and other structures were destroyed or damaged. Most of my family and friends who live along the path taken by the funnel cloud were lucky to narrowly avoid its wrath; it passed by my neighborhood and struck down homes just up the road. But there wasn't even a noticeable wind at my home.

The cleanup of the chaotic mess created by this tornado will go on for a long time, and the character of the landscape destroyed by it will not be the same in my lifetime. 

There are many videos of the twister and its 39-mile track available on the web, thanks largely to the many camera-equipped cell phones out there today. The most dramatic footage I've seen so far was taken by a camera mounted on the roof of a tall building in downtown Springfield, MA. It captured the newly formed twister as it crossed the Connecticut River from West Springfield to Springfield. The funnel doesn't contain a huge amount of debris that would give it that ominous dark color we're used to seeing on tv. But as you watch the shot, you see the twister suck huge amounts of water up and out of about a 2-mile stretch of the wide Connecticut river, pulling the currents back upstream like the proverbial parting of the Red Sea. Just amazing. 

 Since the tornado passed through, I've seen most of the towns it affected. Surprisingly (at least to me), after it swept across the flat terrain of the Connecticut River Valley, wreaking havoc on West Springfield and Springfield, it widened to a half-mile and flew up and over the high hills of Wilbraham, Hampden, Monson, Brimfield, and Sturbridge. These are rural towns, and many lost homes and businesses, but the winds mostly tore up trees. What surprised me most was that the hills provided no interruption to its contact with the land. It swept up one side, over the ridge, and down the other side of each and every hill in its path, for the most part through sparsely populated forested lands, never leaving the ground along the way. High ridges and deep ravines were equally smashed to bits, little in its track escaping it. I would have guessed that it might skip across ridge tops, leaving the hollows and ravines relatively intact. But that was not the case.

Now obviously the primary concern in all of this is for the devastating effects this has had on people's lives and property, no question. But although my property was spared, I was personally affected in another way. As a woodturner and one who greatly appreciates trees both singly and in forests, I couldn't help being both awed by the raw, unrestrained power of the tornado, and dismayed by the sight of literally millions of shattered trees in a 39-mile by half-mile scar across the land. 

Tornado-devastated forest area

Trees young or old, unremarkable or stately, short or tall, softwood or hardwood, fragile or mighty; all were at the mercy of the winds, and most didn't withstand them. Hundreds of thousands were ripped off their roots and thrown down, often onto homes. Even more were unceremoniously snapped off at the waist (particularly white pines), and now stand as shortened, grotesque, defrocked monuments to what was once an inviting, shady grove. Some were obviously tenacious, but were twisted about the axis of their trunks, only to be defeated and left shattered. I've seen hardwoods whose trunks were twisted into a corkscrew; now there's some tough, interlocked grain!

Where forest stands were smashed down, there is no way a person could traverse the area; trees of all types and sizes lay strewn in every direction, in an impenetrable, criss-crossed maze of trunks and limbs. 

Armies of tree crews, linemen, national guardsmen, etc, etc, have been laboring tirelessly (well, I'm sure they're tired!) to clear and re-open roads, and restore electrical power and other services. And they've done a remarkable job. But in forests, where there's no emergency need to remove the wreckage, the trees lay heaped on each other as though they had been mowed down by a giant lawnmower in the sky. Actually, I guess that's just what did happen. 

I've found it's no easy task to take photos that convey the scale of the damage. The impact it had on me was minimal until I witnessed it in person. But I'll share a few photos that might be of interest. Out of respect for those whose homes and property were destroyed, I'll not show any close-ups of their losses; my purpose here is to discuss the effects on the trees. The first photo above shows what's left of what was a dense forest tract; you wouldn't be able to see sky here like this before the tornado struck. What few trunks remain standing are broken off at about the 25-foot level; this seems to have occurred mostly in white pines, whereas most hardwoods are blown over. In the background you can see the side of an unaffected hill, with its dense forest cover (click on photos to enlarge).

The next two photos show a low hillside where homes were hit after the twister crossed a highway and a pond; to the right side of the first shot you can see unaffected, young forest cover just outside the twister's track. Notice how there are few trunks left standing in the wind's path, and those that are have been stripped of all limbs .

Up and over low hill, untouched to the right.

Ravaged Hillside, Homes Lost

 Below are scenes in a state forest... the entire hillside on the left in the first photo has been decimated. In the distance is another hill outside the tornado zone. Click the photo to enlarge it, to get a better sense of the destruction. This road was just recently cleared and re-opened.

State Forest Damage
State Forest Damage

 My friend Bob Labrecque and I clambered over the hopeless tangle of trunks and limbs for a short way off the road to get the second photo. Without exaggeration, I can say that it would be taking your life in your hands to try to traverse this landscape. We made it about 25 yards off the road, and that was all we had the will to do. Fallen trees were lying helter-skelter, over and under each other. Many, though fallen, were still 10 feet or more off the ground. There was so much tree debris down that it was virtually impossible to penetrate this jungle. We couldn't walk more than a few feet without having to climb over or under a huge tree trunk, all the while trying to avoid tripping over countless branches going every which way. If we were to fall off one of those logs and break bones, nobody would find us for who knows how long.

Bob Labrecque Standing on Fallen White Pines

It's very disheartening to see so many trees destroyed in a matter of minutes, mile after mile of them. Because of the huge burden on emergency crews to clear them out of the way as quickly as possible, their carcasses are mostly being carted off to temporary work areas to be ground up in giant shredders. In my town, acres of huge piles of chips have quickly appeared. Convoys of logging trucks bring in the debris, and nearly as many semi trailers haul the chips away to be burned in power plants, or turned into mulch. All the while, machines with grappling claws constantly feed the hungry shredder. Similar operations are underway in other towns too. I have no idea how many thousands of tons, or millions of board feet, of torn-up timber are being chewed up this way, but it's sad to see it happen, especially when you realize that it'll be fifty to a hundred years before the land will be as it was.
Hickory Tree Twisted Apart

It's just awful to see the personal losses many have endured, their homes ripped apart, or even totally demolished. Huge trees laying atop a crushed house. Power lines down everywhere. Roads an impassable tangle of limbs, trunks, wires, utility poles, building wreckage, crushed cars. 

Despite the severity of the damage, most buildings will be restored or rebuilt in a relatively short time, certainly within a couple years. But the denuding of neighborhoods that just minutes before were cozily tucked into quiet, stately stands of tall, mature shade trees is a loss that it will take decades to reverse. In all respects, it's a sad thing to witness.

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