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Fallen Trees Blamed for Irene Outages in Westport

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Marlene Davenport of Fairfield said she's never been a tree hugger.

But when the 34-year-old cyclist and newcomer to town rode along Pequot Avenue in Fairfield late Wednesday afternoon, the sight of large white pines trees and their branches broken into pieces stopped her "dead in my tracks."

Davenport, who paused several times to take in the damage from Hurricane Irene, said she moved from the West Coast earlier this summer. After having lived through several earthquakes, she never expected heavy damage to trees to have such a big impact on power lines.

But Davenport said the home where she is staying hasn't had electricity since early Sunday. "I've been going crazy without my computer and using flash lights to get around at night," she said. "But seeing these trees torn apart puts things in a different perspective. What would have happened if it had been as bad as they were predicting?

Easton Tree Warden Rich McLaughlin said the answer to that is "unimaginable." "If the winds had been just 30 miles an hour higher and reached the predicted 100, the damage we've experienced would have resulted in absolute devastation, the kind of things we're seeing down South," he said.

McLaughlin said that even when a downgraded Irene hit Connecticut, the heavy rain resulted in widespread tree fallings, with a direct bearing on power outages. "I would say 100 percent of the power outages in Easton, and most places, is from downed trees," he said. "We had a little or moderate damage everywhere, with trees knocking out power lines."

Local and state tree experts as well as the utility companies say downed trees, which hit power lines and utility poles and blocked streets, were the main reason more than 700,000 people in Connecticut lost power in the aftermath of the storm – more than were impacted by Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

About many of those customers were still without power Friday evening.

With nearly 60 percent trees and forests covering Connecticut's land mass, combined with a high population density, weather such as Hurricane Irene created the "perfect storm" for massive power outages, according to officials in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

"Connecticut is the fourth most densely populated state in the nation. Yet it also ranks 13th in percentage of forest cover. Few places have as many people living among so much woodland," according to "The Forests of Connecticut," a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But less than 150 years ago, there weren't nearly as many trees in the state. Back then, most people were farmers, and trees and forests cover only about 25 percent of the land.

"We have a high population density and large number of trees, and that obviously presents a problem when storms like Hurricane Irene hit that cause widespread tree damage and outages," said Chris Donnelly, urban forestry coordinator for DEEP. The percentage of forests and tree cover grew to about 60 percent when people flocked from farms to urban centers during the latter part of the 20th century, he said.

David Tracy, president of the Norwalk Tree Alliance, said his city lost its share of trees during Hurricane Irene. But he indicated that winter storms, particularly ice that freezes branches, causes more tree loss than storms such as Irene.

Tracy offered a solution. "If our power lines were underground like so many other parts of the country, we could avoid these weather-related power outages," he said. Tracy also said the storm should serve as a warning for people to "take better care of their trees, and remove ones that are dying or about to fall."

What do you think of people who leave rotting and dying trees standing? Leave a comment below.

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