Winter storms damage Central Texas trees, leaving weakened branches and future hazards

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Several Texas arborists tell KXAN that trees are seeing damage after historic winter storms passed through the state in early February. With trees weakened by the earlier severe weather, more tree damage is possible as additional storms — such as the potential thunderstorms and hail Sunday night into Monday morning in Central Texas — pass through.

As Austin Energy noted, future tree damage could bring about more power outages.

On Sunday, Austin Energy warned customers that potential approaching storms could cause tree limbs to break, which could, in turn, hit power lines and trigger outages. Austin Energy said that with so many trees in the area already weakened from the winter storm a few weeks ago, it is possible Austin could see more outages due to fallen tree limbs as other storms occur.

(Austin area energy providers note that you should NOT drive or go near a downed power line. If you see a tree that is down near power lines, do not go near it and call your local utility provider to alert them).

This alert from Austin Energy comes just weeks after the initial winter storms left so many without power and water across the state.

Viewers sent in photos to KXAN Sunday from the Great Hills area of Northwest Austin, expressing concern about tree branches that are intertwined with powerlines there.

“In Central Texas, you guys still have a lot of trees that still have foliage on them this time of year,” noted A.J. Thibodeaux, an arborist in North Texas. Thibodeaux is president of the Texas Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). ISA provides certification and continuing education for arborists.

Central Texas trees like cedars and live oaks may still have leaves this time of year, Thibodeaux noted. The leaves mean extra opportunities for the trees to be covered with and weighed down by ice.

He suggests that if you see tree damage after the storm that you work with a certified arborist as you assess what to do next. You can search for ISA-certified arborists here.

Thibodeaux also noted, “if for any reason you have a tree that is down or is in close proximity to power lines, absolutely stay away from those trees, do not touch those, call your local utility provider.”

He explained that in Texas, local utility providers and the contractors are the only people allowed to work with a tree if it is within ten feet of powerline wires.

Ben Bertram, the NeighborWoods program coordinator for Austin nonprofit TreeFolks, noted he is seeing lots of downed limbs and downed trees around Austin following the mid-February storms. Additionally, Bertram says he has seen lots of broken branches that are still hanging from trees, which he refers to as “widow makers.”

“Just those hanging branches that have already broken off, that are just hanging in the trees, [it’s] something you gotta watch out for and keep yourself safe.”

Bertram said Austin’s trees were already stressed by the February storms, so any additional storms Monday morning would just compound the situation. He also noted there may be parts of some Austin trees that already died in the winter weather, but it’s not visible now because the trees are dormant.

“I would avoid parking under trees especially ones you have been seeing a history of something chronically — they’ve been slowly declining each year,” Bertram said.

At this point, he doesn’t believe there is much else Central Texas residents can do to protect themselves from tree damage with potential storms Sunday to Monday. In his line of work, he recommends planting larger trees fifty feet away from power lines to avoid risk, but that won’t do anything to help trees that are in risky situations now.

Bertram believes the impacts of the mid-February storms on Central Texas trees won’t be fully seen until the new growth starts coming in for the Spring.

“For the most part our native trees are gonna be able to adapt and overcome, it’s just one of those tough years,” he said.

At the University of Texas at Austin, Urban Forestry supervisor Jennifer Hrobar (who is also an ISA certified arborist) is working with her team of four full-time arborists to clean up damage to trees around UT’s campus after the mid-February storms. Right now, their time has been occupied with addressing downed tree limbs and limbs that are broken but haven’t fallen down yet (“hangers” is what she calls them).

“It’s going to take us months, many months to recover from this, because we were just addressing the most critical stuff first, sidewalks and roads, and getting that out of the way,” Hrobar said.

She said UT saw the worst damage on trees that still hold leaves this time of year, like live oaks, junipers, cedars, and mountain laurels.

“Those leaves collected a lot of ice and we had a lot of breakage from those,” Hrobar noted.

“Thankfully we haven’t had any major catastrophic entire tree failures from the storm,” she said, explaining most of their work now is focused on picking up individual branches.

Her team is trying to turn lemons into lemonade with all the fallen tree limbs, they say the many downed branches can be repurposed as mulch for the campus grounds.

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