Saturday, September 20, 2008

Studying Tree-Related Deaths at Kent State

It's hard to grasp, but true: Trees often become our mortal enemies in storms like the one Sunday that knocked out much of Ohio, a yet-unpublished study claims.

And punctuating a Kent State University professor's nationwide review of storm-related deaths from 1995 to 2007 is this more immediate, close-to-home fact: Five of the six deaths in Ohio from Sunday's freak storm have been from falling trees or branches.

"This incredible storm sadly illustrated what I've found: Trees are the real killer in more storms than most of us realize," said KSU's Tom Schmidlin, a geography professor and longtime meteorologist.

Tree-caused deaths in Ohio from Sunday, when the still potent Hurricane Ike roared far inland, included a 12-year-old Lorain boy hit by a falling branch as he was riding his bike.

In fact, the 56 deaths from the hurricane included a number of other tree-related deaths: two golfers in Tennessee, a man crushed in his motor home in Arkansas and a utility worker in Texas, among them.

Further, the Ohio deaths may qualify as the farthest inland ever recorded from trees downed by a hurricane, which was still blowing in sustained gusts of between 60 and 80 mph, Schmidlin said.

He will present his first-ever study of tree-related storm deaths Oct. 13 at the annual meeting of the National Weather Association in Louisville, Ky.

Among the findings:

• Some 407 people in the United States were killed by falling trees or limbs from 1995 to 2007 -- 41 percent of them in a thunderstorm and another 35 percent in high winds alone.

• The U.S. average for deaths from "wind thrown trees" is 1.45 per million people, about the same as Ohio (1.5 deaths per million).

• Mississippi has the highest average at 5.27 deaths per million, totaling 15 deaths by trees since 1995.

"And that's not counting Katrina -- because they haven't even determined cause of death in many cases," he said. He estimates that at least 15 people in Mississippi died from fallen trees in that 2005 hurricane.

Sunday's storm, which still has 6,500 people without power in Northeast Ohio, had arborists and weather watchers abuzz all week about the extent of the tree damage in Ohio.

Most agree that was caused by a number of related factors, including the time of year and fairly dry summer.

Because the storm hit in September -- not as a midwinter blizzard -- some trees on city and suburban lots became like sailboats. And they crashed.

Clement Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, said the trees had started to shut down for the fall and winter and their roots were holding on a little less than normal. Then, recent rains weakened the soil around tree roots.

The result was that much of the state is still littered with fallen trees.

Schmidlin said he's hopeful that the devastation -- and his study -- will be a wake-up call.

"So, hopefully, we all become more aware of trimming dead wood, not planting trees as close to roadways -- and most importantly, taking cover."

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