Saving trees damaged by storms

Carefully assess storm-damaged trees to determine which are worth saving and which are goners.

Heavy storms rolled through many parts of Michigan this week and in a few areas even spawned tornadoes. As is often the case after severe weather outbreaks, one of the most common questions homeowners face is what to do with storm-damaged trees.

Damage to trees following high winds and heavy rains can range from a few downed limbs to complete up-rooting and everything in between. On the two ends of the extreme, the choices are fairly obvious, but often the decision of whether to try to keep a tree can be difficult.

When assessing storm damaged trees, Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping the following factors in mind.

Trees (or limbs) usually fail for a reason

In rare cases such as tornadoes, healthy trees will be destroyed along with everything else; but most trees or limbs that come down in typical thunderstorms usually have a defect that caused them to fail. Common defects include decay, poor branch architecture, pervious mechanical damage or poor root structure. If a tree loses a limb during a storm because of decay, it’s possible other limbs on the tree may have similar problems. Therefore, it’s important to try to determine where and why the problem occurred on the tree and if the problem is likely to be repeated.

Root rot Storm damage
Left, Hidden defects like root rot often contribute to tree failures during storms. Photo credit: Bert Cregg, MSU.
Right, Large trees with advanced decay are often prone to failure during severe weather.
Photo credit: Justin Meier, International Society of Arboriculture,

Does the damage make the tree more likely to fail in the future?

If a tree loses a major limb on one side, the tree may become unbalanced and may become prone to fail in the next storm.

What is the tree likely to hit if it fails or loses major limbs?

Arborists that deal with hazard tree assessment talk in terms of “targets.” Think in terms of worst case scenario. A damaged tree is much more of a concern if it is near a structure, sidewalk or children’s play area than if it’s alone in the field or along an untraveled woodline.

What was the condition of the tree before the storm and what are its long-term prospects?

These are questions that usually require the input of a professional arborist. However, the National Arbor Day Foundation has put together an illustrated a guide, “Can these trees be saved?” that provides useful insights to help homeowners gauge the condition of their trees after a storm.

When in doubt, call a professional

Working around storm-damaged trees is deadly serious business. Taking down trees under the best of circumstances can be tricky enough. Trees that are damaged in storms frequently have decay or defects that are not obvious, which can cause them to do the unexpected when working around them. If you are unsure of the condition of a tree or if a tree is near utilities, structures, cars or people, contact a professional arborist to ensure a safe removal. The International Society of Arboriculture, which provides training and certification for professional arborists, has a “Find an Arborist” feature on its website. Certified arborists can be found by searching by city or zip code.

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