Weather News

Hurricane thins Hilton Head’s tree population again. Wind, water could topple others

Hurricane Dorian knocked down 80 trees as it lumbered past Hilton Head Island -- but those may not be the last ones to fall.

City and state officials say people should be on the lookout for standing trees that were weakened by strong, gusty winds.

This year’s loss of trees is minuscule compared to Hurricane Matthew three years ago. That’s when an estimated 120,000 trees fell, blocking roads and causing misery for island residents trying to recover from the storm.

While island officials were relieved Hilton Head didn’t lose as many trees from Dorian as Matthew, some trees that remain standing could have been damaged from high winds, making them more likely to topple over, experts said Thursday.

The trees most susceptible to damage from high winds include water oaks, Carolina laurel cherries and Chinese elms, according to Clemson University. But any tree damaged enough could fall — or a heavy branch could snap.

“What we can’t have is that six months or a year after this event, these trees are collapsing,’’ said Bob Polomski, a tree specialist with Clemson University’s extension service. “We just can’t afford that.’’

Polomski said Hilton Head Island residents should take a look at their trees, and if a tree looks unsteady or it has broken branches, call an arborist for an assessment. It could wind up saving property and lives, he said.

He noted that people have been killed when trees or branches have fallen, including a 3-year-old boy near Columbia, S.C., five years ago. The youngster died at a picnic.

Tree branches can weigh hundreds of pounds, including those on some of the most common and iconic trees on Hilton Head: live oaks. Those trees are generally wind resistant, but even they can can be weakened by hurricanes, he said.

“People need to monitor trees,’’ he said, noting that a sign of problems is dying leaves that could weaken branches or the entire tree. People also should look at the base of trees to see if major roots that hold the trees up have been damaged, he said.

“If you see any raised areas, it may be any indication the tree swayed, the root lifted and disturbed the soil,’’ he said.

Scott Liggett, Hilton Head Island’s public projects director, said the city spent much of Thursday clearing trees that had blocked access on roads.

But he said Hilton Head’s count of 80 downed trees is only along roads, where access had been blocked for cars. Trees that fell on private land well off roads are not in the city’s assessment of lost trees, he said.

For now, Liggett urged people to be on alert as Hilton Head gets back to normal after Hurricane Dorian.

“We and the community at large will try to attune ourselves to those trees,’’ he said. “If trees are leaning or hanging or something like that, that will create a hazard.’’

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.