Across Philadelphia region, downed trees present a challenge

Nate Campbell surveys damage to the family car by a fallen oak on Birch Drive in Levittown. By evening Wednesday, 350,000 in Pennsylvania remained without power, with the largest pockets in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
Nate Campbell surveys damage to the family car by a fallen oak on Birch Drive in Levittown. By evening Wednesday, 350,000 in Pennsylvania remained without power, with the largest pockets in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 01, 2012

Only leaves are supposed to fall in the autumn.

Sandy changed all that.

The "superstorm" was no superhero to trees in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania suburbs.

All over the region, trees are draped across roads. Trees are in repose, their roots as exposed as a baby's bare bottom. Branches are dangling, and trees are balanced ever so delicately, so dangerously, on power lines.

If those portions of poplars and slivers of sycamores looked very much alive before Sandy stormed into the Philadelphia region Monday, they probably were.

"Mother Nature doesn't take dead trees," said Mark Focht, Philadelphia's first deputy commissioner of parks and recreation.

Big, leafy trees act as sails that catch the wind, he said, and then they go down.

Sherrie Ritterman, a speech pathologist who lives with her husband in Wynnewood, sat in her den Monday night, "knitting and watching a nice movie. You know, minding my own business. My husband was working at the hospital, the night shift.

"The trees are whishing, and all of a sudden, I heard this humongous crash. A huge crash. . . . It was sort of like a scary movie. I went upstairs to see what was going on. And I felt cold air up there, and I thought, 'Uh-oh, this is not good.'

"I walked into the middle bedroom and the windows are blown out. Double-pane window hanging off its sill. There's, I guess, like 12 inches of a tree in the house."

Montgomery County officials plan to conduct an audit Thursday to count the number of fallen trees.

In Philadelphia, about 412 city trees fell during the storm, mostly in the Northeast and Northwest, officials said. That doesn't include felled trees on private property.

Though Sandy's tree toll may seem hefty, an unnamed storm that passed through the city in June 2010 claimed more than 1,200 trees, mostly in Center City and West Philadelphia, Focht said.

In South Jersey, 10 trees fell on roads in Gloucester County and about 150 in parks and along streets in Camden County; most of the trees blocking roads there were cleared Wednesday, officials said. In Burlington County, 50 roads remained closed because of fallen trees and wires.

A massive jumble of leafy trees and utility pole fragments still blocked the road adjacent to Strawbridge Lake in Moorestown on Wednesday.

"One tree fell on another and took two poles with it," said Jim Williams, who lives next to the mess on Haines Road and who heard the crash around 6 p.m. Monday.

His house and much of the Collins Park neighborhood behind him have been without electricity since.

Sandy has made for boom times for private tree-service companies.

"We've gotten a lot of calls," said Steve Shreiner, owner of Shreiner Tree Care in King of Prussia. "I would say in excess of 50."

Shreiner said the business prioritizes jobs, first tackling those that present hazards.

Dean Diehl, an arborist with Shreiner, cruised in his white Ford Escape through Montgomery County on Wednesday afternoon. After storms like Sandy, he said, people in neighboring cars call out to him and ask whether he can come to their houses - which are always "just around the corner."

Diehl's ride had a rhythm: Pass a splintered tree or pole, answer his cellphone.

"Hi, Charlie," he said on one call. "Tell me you got away safe and nothing happened." A pause. "That's not the answer I was looking for."

He stopped at one job site on County Line Road in Villanova, where Sandy uprooted three tulip poplars.

The trio of trees was planted on one property, but landed in a neighbor's yard, Diehl said. According to Pennsylvania law, he said, the person responsible for removing a downed tree generally is the owner of the land where it fell, leaving one set of homeowners to "incur the wrath of the mess" from their neighbors.

In this case, he said, the neighbors are friends and there was no quarrel.

Diehl emphasized that storms like Sandy, leaving trees bent and broken and bobbing on wires, create much more dangerous conditions for tree crews.

"When guys go out like this," he said, "they work a lot slower because the trees are under completely different tensions than normally."

Stephanie Sauers-Boyd, head of Sauers Tree & Landscape Service in Dresher, said a frequent question she fields is about insurance.

"The best thing for [homeowners] is to call their insurance provider and find out what is covered on their policy," she said.

Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109,, or follow @carolyntweets on Twitter.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Mari A. Schaefer, Jessica Parks, Alfred Lubrano, Jan Hefler, Darran Simon, and David O'Reilly.

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