The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, as documented above by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, included flooding in the South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, home to the lovely tree installation by the Starn brothers we reported on four years ago. Back then, the station looked like this:
“See it split, see it change” by Mike + Doug Starn. Installation view via the artists’ website.
The trees pictured in the installation, said the artists, were documented in nearby Battery Park, the Manhattan area hit hardest by the 4.2 meter storm surge, being located at the southernmost tip of the island. Have the sprawling old trees depicted in the installation managed to survive the winds and flooding of the past days?
Safe here in cold, but calm, Berlin, I spent the past days worrying about friends in New York City and New Haven as Hurricane Sandy passed through . Sara, the other founder of Urban Plant Research, reported yesterday that thankfully, there was little damage and no flooding in her South Slope neighborhood, also home to Open Source Gallery, which often hosts our events. But other parts of New York are dealing with serious consequences, both infrastructural and environmental. Flooding has not only knocked out subway tunnels and service, but has also washed the toxic residues in the large, polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn into surrounding homes, businesses and streets.
And of course, a lot of trees have come down, blocking streets, crashing into houses and cars, pulling down power lines and littering parks, as the New Haven Independent reported in “Tim-berrrr!!!” and “Wind Wreaks Havoc…”).
I feel torn between sympathizing with those affected by the fall of these giants, and wondering whether people will now see trees as threats, liabilities best kept out of our cities. Our colleague at local ecologist has been tweeting links to informative scientific papers examining these questions in depth by examining the damage caused by other major storms in the past decade. I’m still working my way through them, but so far, it seems that there’s no grounds for deeming urban and suburban trees to be dangerous, per se. Rather, from what I’ve read so far, while some trees are a real threat — some non-native species, ill-adapted to local conditions, as well as trees that are old or otherwise compromised, most strong, healthy native trees and well-adapted species should not cause concern.
It is unnerving to be suddenly realize that trees, which often seem like inaminate and static fixtures in our landscape, are actually fragile, living things that can be uprooted, broken and thrown into our homes and property. On the other hand, we regularly take down trees ourselves, whether directly or indirectly – by using paper, wood, or buying Christmas trees.
Another photo by Melissa Bailey for the New Haven Independent, shows that one tree had already been taken down prior to the storm, by humans: the city’s Christmas tree, which weathered the storm in a horizontal position. This leads me to ponder why we can blithely chop down trees ourselves, but hold it against trees when they come down in storms – should they have asked our permission first?
I admit it’s alarming when such forceful events occur without notice and when we realize we have no influence over them. I, too, tend to think of the trees in my environment as an immutable given — even though I spend so much of my time as an artist trying to relate to them — and I would likely also react with alarm and fear if they suddenly went flying. But as we start the after-storm cleanup and start looking ahead, will we see trees as a threat to be minimized, or as living things — possibly a little neglected — that were swept up in a force that neither they, nor we, could control?
Research on trees in storms
Recommended by local ecologist on Twitter:
C.Y. Jim and Howard H.T. Liu. Storm damage on urban trees in Guangzhou, China. Landscape and Urban Planning, 1997.
John K. Francis. Comparison of Hurrican Damage to Several Species of Urban Trees in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (PDF) Journal of Arboriculture, July 2000.
Duryea et al. Wind and trees: a survey of homeowners after Hurricane Andrew. (PDF) School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida.