Many residents and visitors enjoy the 2.5 million trees in the District, but an urban canopy can become a liability in severe weather. Uprooted trees or fallen limbs can take down power lines, injure people and damage cars, homes and businesses. With wind gusts hitting 70 miles an hour and drenching rainfall across our region, many eyed trees warily as superstorm Sandy hit this week. We find out how the city, businesses and homeowners fared, and what can be done to prepare for future storms.


  • John Thomas Associate Director of Urban Forestry, D.C. Department of Transportation
  • Mark Buscaino Executive Director, Casey Trees


  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, comic book heroes are our cultural touchstones. We look at what the most recent Superman says about us. But first, with wind gusts hitting 70 miles an hour and drenching rainfall across our region, one of the biggest casualties of a storm like Sandy is trees. And with 2.5 million trees in the District alone, our beautiful tree canopy can become a liability in bad weather.

  • 13:07:28

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIPower outages and downed trees were not that extensive here, but with the memory of this summer's derecho still fresh, those responsible for taking care of the damage say we cannot be complacent. Joining us to discuss this is John Thomas. He is the associate director of Urban Forestry with the D.C. Department of Transportation. John, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:48

    MR. JOHN THOMASGood afternoon, Kojo.

  • 13:07:49

    NNAMDIAnd Mark Buscaino's back. It seems like every couple of years we have Mark Buscaino in studio. He is the executive director of Casey Trees. Mark, good to see you again.

  • 13:07:57

    MR. MARK BUSCAINOThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:07:59

    NNAMDIJohn, I'll start with you. Can you talk about the scope of the damage?

  • 13:08:03

    THOMASYeah, we -- like you mentioned earlier, we dodged a bullet, I think, that we don't want people to become complacent on these storms. But certainly heading into fall with the leaves dry and most of them off was really a beneficial thing for us because the wind was able to pass through the trees. We were concerned when the rains started quite earlier than we were anticipating and we did reach some saturation in our soils. But overall we really suffered a light blow, but still a significant blow and lost about 200, 225 trees.

  • 13:08:39


  • 13:08:40

    BUSCAINOYeah, I think John kind of summarized it. I think we -- you know, I heard that the gusts were up to 70. If they were I think we probably would've had a much more damaging storm. Two-hundred trees out of -- and, John, correct me if I'm wrong -- I think you have a 140,000 out there on the street.

  • 13:08:54

    THOMASThat's correct.

  • 13:08:55

    BUSCAINOSo it's a really small percentage. And we didn't really get hammered as we would typically have gotten if we did have the higher winds because the soil was saturated. So the root systems were not as stable as they were as for example in the derecho. But it's interesting to note that the derecho actually kind of pre-pruned our trees. You know, it was a very nasty wind and it was short lived but it was very, very powerful. And Mother Nature is nature's pruning shears as well. So it really did take down and prune a lot of limbs off of trees at that time, the weak ones.

  • 13:09:30

    NNAMDIAre you dealing with downed trees or branches in your property? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to John, I want to underscore the point you already made and that is that we shouldn't take storm warnings less seriously in the future because of this.

  • 13:09:47

    THOMASThat's correct. We just got lucky here. We just -- it was the right season late in the fall and it was just far enough north that we were able to kind of stay out of it. And you know, but I -- we've had these events so often now that it's something I think you just have to be ready for and be concerned about being safe and getting...

  • 13:10:09

    NNAMDIWhy does it make a difference that it was in the fall and so a lot of leaves were already off the trees?

  • 13:10:15

    THOMASWell, what we experienced in the derecho is we had -- is -- what most people don't probably think about is the healthy trees fall first during these big events because they have the biggest canopy, the largest sail effect and they gather the most wind. So during the derecho we had full leaf so trees that -- such as red oaks and trees that have big huge canopies were able to really grab on to a lot of wind. And that structure of the tree was not able to hold it. This time we had a lot of the leaves were off or they were dry. The wind blew them off and then blew through the canopy of the tree as opposed to acting like a big sail.

  • 13:10:48

    NNAMDIFascinating. Mark, what kind of preparation did your organization, Casey Trees, do leading up to this storm?

  • 13:10:55

    BUSCAINOWell, we kind of take a little bit of a different tact. We knew that the storm was coming in so we told people to be mindful of that, to take precautions. But we also, on the backend of the storm, want to remind people that we have many programs and alternatives to replace canopy that may have been lost in their private lots or in their community and in other areas.

  • 13:11:15

    BUSCAINOJohn, for the UFAs part -- and he can speak more about this of course -- has started their fall planting where they're putting in, I think, 6500 trees, which is really a fantastic opportunity to call in if there's a tree on your street that needs to be planted or a tree that needs to be replaced so to speak. So we kind of take the alternate. We know these storms are coming. We know that they will impart some damage on the weaker trees out there and it's important to replace those weaker trees for a stronger tomorrow for the tree canopy.

  • 13:11:46

    NNAMDIHow the wind and the rain behave are also both important in terms of whether trees survive a storm. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:11:55

    THOMASYeah, this was an odd one because the wind came kind of up and back and down so it didn't come from the prevailing direction necessarily. And trees tend to grow and balance themselves forming reaction wood and stuff to shoulder themselves against the prevailing winds. When we have wind that comes from other directions and then certainly in a saturated soil where the soil's completely filled with water, the tree has a really difficult time of holding itself upright. So it's a challenge on which direction the wind's coming, how fast.

  • 13:12:31

    THOMASI think one of the benefits we also saw was having a high sustained wind also allows -- when the gusts do come the difference between that sustained wind and the gust is less. The derecho wind from kind of a 0 to 60 and that's the trees worst, you know, it's sitting there and all of a sudden it just gets basically pushed over.

  • 13:12:51

    NNAMDIAnd when the rain falls also seems to matter, does it not, Mark? If there's a lot of rain before then the roots become more affected by that?

  • 13:13:01

    BUSCAINOAbsolutely. The roots are only going to hold the tree up for as long as they can hold onto the soil. And if the soil is very, very loose and if the tree is within a situation where the rooting volume is limited, which is really kind of a part of being an urban tree in some cases, street trees in particular, and some of them are growing between just the curb and the sidewalk in many situations. And when that soil system becomes very loose it doesn't have a lot to hold onto to start with. And once it's saturated it becomes more unstable.

  • 13:13:37

    BUSCAINOBut I don't want to emphasize that point too much. Again, I'll say, you know, John had mentioned 200 tree issues out of 140,000 trees on the streets. I think it's important to remember how many trees didn't fall down and how much trees provide to our community and to our neighborhoods. And how much less of a good neighborhood we would have if we didn't have those.

  • 13:14:00

    NNAMDIMark Buscaino is in studio with us. He is the executive director of Casey Trees. John Thomas is the associate director of Urban Forestry with the D.C. Department of Transportation. The number here is 800-433-8850. Did you have any damage from fallen branches or trees looking for advice? Call us, 800-433-8850. Here is Diane on Capitol Hill. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:14:27

    DIANEYes, thank you. I live on Capitol Hill and the 200 and 300 blocks of 8th Street Southeast have amazing old oaks that the roots are very shallow. And the last two storms have brought down two of them. I just wondered if there's anything you can do to a tree, because there are many more still to come down unfortunately, to stabilize the trees somehow or if it comes to the point where you have to take them down because they're doing a job on the houses on the block and the cars.

  • 13:15:07

    NNAMDIMark Buscaino?

  • 13:15:08

    BUSCAINOThat's a -- you know, it's every street tree arborist's nightmare, the question you just asked. You know, and John, I don't want to speak for you, but I can say that arborists want to keep trees for as long as they possibly can stay because of the benefits they provide. And the larger they are, the more benefits they provide. However, they all reach a point where it's time for them to come down. And I can tell you a lot of cases where I've been in a situation where I'm saying, this tree needs to come down and the community is completely up in arms because of that.

  • 13:15:37

    BUSCAINOIt's hard to, at some point in time, explain that in a way that makes sense because trees in many ways are community. And when those trees come down the community really kind of gets upended. And so the answer to your question is it's hard once a tree attains a certain size to stabilize it, so to speak. It has a lifespan that, you know, typically lasts for an oak somewhere around 70, 80, 90 years. And then after that chances are it probably needs to come down and a new tree needs to be put in its place.

  • 13:16:08


  • 13:16:09

    THOMASYeah, we're very familiar with that block. We had a couple instances during the derecho there and again on this storm. But those are large oaks. They have the same root system that all oaks do. And it just happened -- you know, sometimes the contour of the city in certain blocks we just tend to see repeated issues. And it's just the way the wind travels through those particular areas of the city. But we have three arborists that manage Wards 2 and 6 and they are constantly on that block keeping eyes on those trees. And when the time comes and when we feel those trees are a risk we'll get them out of the system.

  • 13:16:49

    NNAMDIDiane, thank you very much for your call. John, how do you prioritize damage after the storm? How do you prioritize the work that you do?

  • 13:16:57

    THOMASWe try to get out -- kind of like a regular emergency management system concept where we get out and do some inspections and find out what we have and what we're dealing with. And then when we kind of get a handle on what we have we start with trees blocking the road because we want to get the roadway and people moving and ambulance and fire and everything back to somewhat normal. And then we, at the same time, are looking at trees on houses and trying to schedule those two as our main focus or main priority, and at the same time working through sidewalk and curb lane blockage issues.

  • 13:17:34

    THOMASAnd then all of that is in conjunction working with Pepco so that we can be there when they're clearing the line and getting the trees -- the area safe for tree workers so we can move in and get that work down. And that kind of pattern goes over days, weeks, depending on the size of the storm following that same protocol.

  • 13:17:51

    NNAMDIAnd then finally alleys, right?

  • 13:17:53

    THOMASAnd then finally alleys, that's right. One thing to note on alleys is the District doesn't own any trees in the alleys. So those are all trees from private property when the alley's blocked. So we are clearing up and trying to get those alleys opened for trash but those are typically private property trees.

  • 13:18:09

    NNAMDIMark, if someone does notice a tree down what should they do?

  • 13:18:13

    BUSCAINOWell, the first thing to do is to call up the emergency services. Be very, very mindful wires could be down and you are not going to see them in all cases, especially when leaves are falling. And it can be a very, very hazardous situation. So call the appropriate authorities, 911, 311 and stay away is probably the best thing that you should do.

  • 13:18:34

    NNAMDIFor people who did have a tree down or a limb down, it may be time to call your insurance company. We spoke with Billy Simons, owner of the Rust Insurance Agency here in D.C. He talked about what people should know about storm damage.

  • 13:18:48

    BILLY SIMONSWind is a standard covered cause of loss on a standard insurance policy -- a homeowner's insurance policy. So if wind is "the proximate cause" of the loss than it's covered. If wind blew your tree over and hit your house it's covered. If wind blew rain in it's covered. So you know what happens is people get a roof -- or a limb through their house and then all of a sudden they're getting water damage now, which typically wouldn't be covered but the wind is what blew the water in. The wind is the proximate cause and therefore it would be covered. But wind, again, is a standard covered cause of loss under -- I don't want to say all, but most standard homeowner's policies.

  • 13:19:30

    BILLY SIMONSWhen it comes to trees on their property, people need to know that if a neighbor's tree has come down in your yard that it's going to be up to you to get that tree out of there. If it is something that you have informed your neighbor about and told them that you're concerned about, say, the health of the tree and you've written them a certified letter to that effect so that you could use that as evidence later, you've created liability for that neighbor to act prudently in removing the tree or cutting it back from your house. If you haven't done that, there's no liability for that neighbor to do anything to that tree.

  • 13:20:07

    BILLY SIMONSIf it falls over into your yard, again it is not an intentional act by that neighbor so it is your responsibility to get the tree out. If it's damaged your property or landed on your house, then you need to call your insurance agent and file a claim. If you've got something that comes down on your -- on top of your house, you would just call and file a claim. Take pictures of everything. They're going to want to know, and probably what they're going to tell you is go ahead and get it fixed and send us the bill.

  • 13:20:35

    BILLY SIMONSBut property values are the big issue. People think that once they've bought their house and get the insurance that you're required to have in order to close on the house that they should just leave it alone forever. That's not the case. Costs to rebuild go up every year so you need to keep up with that inflation. Make sure that your limits are adequate.

  • 13:20:55

    NNAMDIBilly Simons is owner of the Rust Insurance Agency here in D.C. And if your head, like mine, is spinning, you should know we'll be talking more about insurance in an upcoming segment. So stay tuned for that. Here is Ron in Silver Spring, Md. Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:21:12

    RONHi. Good afternoon. My question has to do with do you know of a tree leaf identifier so you can identify the tree and why is that so? Because I have poplars of which I have some in my neighborhood and I can't believe they're like 150, 175' high but they have a very shallow root system. And so that would help me know which trees are the more dangerous ones. I looked all over iPhone and I could not find an app that is a leaf identifier. So I'm wondering do you know where one can go and figure out how to identify these?

  • 13:21:54


  • 13:21:55

    BUSCAINOYeah, actually the Smithsonian developed one. I do not know if it's up and running but you might want to check the to see if that app has been released. I know it was going to be launched but I don't know if it is. The other thing you can do is go to the University of Maryland's website. There should be some tree species identifiers there. And Casey Trees has something similar as well. But if you have trees that you feel are in some way, shape or form unhealthy I would suggest you contact a certified -- ISA certified arborist and have that person come out to your yard and provide that service for you.

  • 13:22:32

    NNAMDIRon, thank you for your call. John, the preparation and care that goes on year around by this city is also important. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:22:40

    THOMASYeah, we have to manage these trees so that when we get into storm situations, you know, we've managed out the things that we know to be a problem. And we have a very robust pruning program where we're, you know, providing pruning services to all levels of trees from our young tree to our mature trees and removing just the dead, the diseased and problematic branching. We don't chide -- we try to get away from doing too much live wood removal on the older trees because they don't have the ability to survive that type of wounding.

  • 13:23:14

    THOMASAnd then also we have a removal program where when we do find trees that are no longer structurally sound or maybe have heavy disease loads we do try to get them out of the system as fast as possible so that what we're left with is a prospering healthy urban forest.

  • 13:23:30

    NNAMDIYou have more expertise on this than I do, but it's my understanding that trees are meant to lose limbs and in some cases come down. It's a part of nature.

  • 13:23:39

    THOMASThat's true. The tree system of coda is what arborists refer to it as. It basically -- the way the tree grows and the way the tree develops when that limb is no longer providing a benefit to that tree, the tree will start to leave that limb and that limb will slowly die. And eventually at the branch where the branch and crotch meet that limb will fall off and do its own self pruning.

  • 13:24:08

    NNAMDIAnd if in your neighborhood there are a lot of trees with dead limbs and you want limbs cut off as opposed to the whole tree, you can call 311 if you have any concerns, and get some help there. On the other hand, Mark, your organization helps people and businesses care for and plant trees. What should people who have trees on their property look for in terms of preparing for the next storm?

  • 13:24:30

    BUSCAINOThat's a good question. It's a little bit difficult to kind of verbally explain issues with trees. I think John had spoken a little bit about some of larger trees and the issues that they can be subject to. What you want to do is be careful. If you see branches that have split off and if there are tears in the bark on the main trunk, in the fall in particular you want to be mindful of any mushrooms you see growing on the tree because that's a very, very clear sign of decay that's occurring somewhere in the tree, whether it's on the roots or in the stem. And that's a real big red flag.

  • 13:25:07

    BUSCAINOBut what you should do is if you've got questions, again, call up a certified arborist -- an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. They'll do a -- some of them do it pro bono. Some of them will do it as a part of their pruning or their maintenance business and there may not be any work to do. Some of them will do it on a consulting basis and the fees typically are fairly reasonable for that.

  • 13:25:31

    NNAMDIIs there a time of year that's best for trimming and pruning trees?

  • 13:25:34

    BUSCAINOThere are some caveats in terms of elms and maples. But by and large you can prune, for the most part, any time of year. I typically suggest to folks that if they want to try to save some money, which is usually the question that is asked, to wait until the wintertime when things tend to slow down for the tree care companies. It's not always the case -- certainly it's not the case now as for example, but it typically is the case in the wintertime.

  • 13:25:59

    NNAMDII'm reliably informed that the Smithsonian tree identification app is called leaf snap L-E-A-F S-N-A-P, leaf snap. Mark Buscaino is the executive director of Casey Trees. Mark, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:26:14

    BUSCAINOThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:26:15

    NNAMDIJohn Thomas is the associate director of Urban Forestry with the D.C. Department of Transportation. John, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:26:21

    THOMASThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:26:22

    NNAMDIHurricane Sandy has forced a lot of people in organizations to reshuffle their plans in profound ways. It's also affected our local soccer team D.C. United which recently made the Major League Soccer Playoffs for the first time in five years. D.C. United was supposed to square off against the New York Red Bulls in New York this weekend but that game has been moved to Washington. So it will now take place this Saturday, November 3 at RFK Stadium at 8:00 p.m. So if you're feeling some D.C. pride and you want to support the red and black for their postseason run, tickets are apparently still available. That game November 3, this Saturday at RFK Stadium at 8:00 p.m..

  • 13:27:00

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, comic books, how they reflect our society as it evolves. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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