Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A 'PERFECT STORM'


     Rockland County, N.Y. -- The freak early snow that last weekend took down so many trees and branches and with them the power lines of ever-larger suburbia came as a “perfect storm” since (1) the trees still have largely green leaves that acted as a weight for the heavy, wet stuff, and (2) there simply is too much foliage. The suburbs, having lured homebuyers for decades to “the country,” now must eat the fruit of overgrowth.
Trees are wonderful -- they help clean the air, provide stress relief, shade us and remind us that the concrete of “progress” must be eased. But when you plant a tree, just as when you have hair on your head, trims are necessary for both styling and practicality. Nature takes care of tree overgrowth in a forest by lightning, fire, light, disease  and drought.  But homeowners usually don’t do much to their trees, and many a yard in these parts is out of hand. Overgrowth brings mold to siding,  inside, too, and the worry that the trees will fall on something.
This year, a very warm and wet summer in the Northeast helped trees grow at probably twice the rate, and it has kept the leaves green and still attached to branches. So, when the unexpectedly early and heavy snow arrived, the many trees, especially with overgrown branches, came down, in many cases bringing power lines with them. There were outages everywhere in this, New York’s smallest county geographically outside New York City but also a densely populated, built-up suburbia with thousands of utility poles and lines.
When I was Editorial Page editor of The Journal News in Rockland, I penned perhaps 25 edits over 30 years calling for (1) underground electric, cable and phone lines in all new construction, paid by developers; (2) a ban on trees over 10 feet tall within 15 feet of overhead wires and regulation of species (for example, no maple or oak); (3) aggressive trimming of all existing trees in utility right of ways, not the barbershop whisk now provided, which guarantees return work for the contractors already getting big bucks from ratepayers.
Most of all, we advocated for a comprehensive storm response plan. While the Rockland Fire Coordinator’s Office has put together a remarkable  blueprint that involves utilities, firefighters, police, highway departments and first-aiders, more needs to be done by municipalities and by the utilities. 
• For example, there might be a plan to have on call the great army of landscapers and their workers, quite happy to do immediate tree cutting. Surely liability insurance waivers can be obtained to press these people into service when needed. In the recent storm, trees made safe from power lines were still left for overburdened highway departments and utility workers.
• For public safety, drop-down, four-way stop signs might be installed at all intersections with traffic lights, which could be put into operation immediately. However, officers should be stationed at the most dangerous crossings, with all personnel on notice that they must report whether off duty or not and with auxiliary police and retired officers volunteering. 
• To enlarge the community spirit, there should be volunteers ready to help in debris removal, running errands for the sick and elderly, etc. A phone list should be ready. 
• Utilities and municipalities should have communication briefings on the hour, via TV, Internet, the media, cell phones. They should have enough live operators to handle calls. Retired workers should be available to help.
Such ideas -- and surely there are others from the full public -- must be welcomed since it seems nature will be blasting us with more bad storms. Rockland must be better prepared. 

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