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How to Recover From Tree Damage After a Storm

Arkansans deal with major storms several times per year in every season. Once power is restored after a storm and clean up initiated, land and homeowners can begin to assess damage to their trees.

Should you pay for immediate tree cleanup?

There is no need for landowners and homeowners to pay a premium for services in the first few weeks after the storm. In the case of landscape trees, cleanup and tree trimming doesn't have to be done immediately unless life or property are threatened.

Assess Landscape Tree Damage

Oak tree with a broken top from ice damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
TOPPED -- This oak tree has lost its top but a new one will emerge.  [Image courtesy Caroll Guffey, University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture]

Storm damage to landscape trees can range from major to minor.

Major vs. minor tree damage

While minor injuries seldom result in permanent damage to the tree, severe injuries can increase a tree's susceptibility to insect and disease attack ultimately killing the tree. Damage to landscape trees should therefore be properly treated and repaired to maintain the health of the tree. You as a homeowner can treat some types of damage.

When to involve a tree specialist

Other more serious damage should be treated by a tree specialist. A tree specialist should treat other more serious damage especially if extensive bracing, cabling or removal of large branches is required. As always, never try to remove branches or trees from utility lines. Let the professionals do it. As with all things, there is a right and a wrong way to repair storm‑damaged trees.

The following categories of storm-damaged trees will survive for now and can wait to be harvested later when emergency salvage operations are over.

  • Trees with broken tops, which still have four or more live limbs remaining

  • Trees leaning less than 45°

  • Windblown trees with roots still in the ground

What should I look for in a tree specialist?

Major repair will undoubtedly require the use of a chain saw and climbing equipment. Unless you are experienced in the use of such equipment and comfortable working off the ground, it may be best to have the work performed by a competent professional. The names of qualified firms can be obtained from local nursery workers. Also, look for listings of professionals under "Tree Service" in when searching. Make sure that they carry proper liability and workman's compensation insurance before allowing them to begin work on the job.

To protect your self and your property it's okay to ask for references or qualifications. You might want to hold on to your money until it has been completely earned by the person you have hired to do a job. Even under critical emergency conditions, complete, good quality repairs and tree removal must be done or more damage and deterioration can appear in the future. 

Hazard tree inspections offer the best protection against future storm damage. Systematic inspections and assessments allow you to find and correct defective trees. Sound trees can withstand stronger winds than defective trees, so during storms the likelihood of tree failure is reduced.

What is a Certified Arborist?

Find Certified Arborists in your areaInternational Society of Arboriculture

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Common Types of Storm Damage to Landscape Trees

Storm damage can be rated based on the degree and type of damage.

 Photo Damage Rating Recommendations
Young tree leaning from storm damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
  • Broken twigs / small branches

  • Less than 25% crown damage

  • Less than 45° lean
  • Leave for now

  • Prune small broken branches using proper techniques

  • Stake small trees (4 inches in diameter or less)
Storm-topped shrubs with minimal crown damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
  • Broken tops

  • Less than 30% damage
Minimal to Moderate
  • Remove the broken snags down to the next major interior branch

  • Try not to top the tree

  • Prune using the "natural target pruning" method by Dr. Alex Shigo (also know as  three-step cutting)
Tree with 50% of damaged crown | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
  •  50% crown damage
  • If more than 50% of the crown is damaged, monitor over 2 year period

  • If damage much greater than 50%, consider removing the tree
Pine trees bent from snow & ice damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
  • Bent more than 45°
  • Pine trees that are severely bent will have cracks in the bark and resin flow which will attract beetles. Bent hardwoods are less likely to be attacked by insects or diseases.

  • Hire a professional - too dangerous to remove yourself!
Tree with split trunk | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
  • Split trunk
  • If there is nothing left, cut to the ground.

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Does Tree Topping Help?

Many people panic after a storm and hire tree service companies to "top" their tree.  Although a common practice, tree topping is not recommended by professional Arborists.

Topping a tree means removing most of the branches from a tree in a unfounded belief that such a measure will prevent ice or wind damage.  All of the smaller branches are cut in the hope that the branches will therefore not fail. However, tree topping can create more problems rather than solving them.

Tree Topped Following an Ice Storm Same Tree 5 Years later
Tree with top cut out | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension Topped Tree after 5 years | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
This tree was severely topped although it had not suffered that much damage during the ice storm.  Topping removes all of the buds that the tree had in place for growing the next season's leaves.  The tree responds by growing many more new, smaller branches. Five years later, the tree grew many more branches that are not well attached to the larger branches.  These weaker attachments are now more prone to fail during the next wind or ice event.  By topping the tree, the homeowner has created much more of a hazard than if they had pruned the tree properly.

To learn more about tree topping, read the article by the Arkansas Urban Forestry CouncilLink opens in a new window to the Arkansas Urban Forestry Council site.

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Wound Treatment

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to treat trunk and limb wounds with tree paint. Research shows that painted areas can actually lead to increased rot and decay due to trapped moisture.  Following the proper pruning practice of "natural target pruning" or three-step cutting is the key to treating storm-damaged trees.

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Waste Disposal & Firewood

Arborists with safety ropes cutting down tree | Storm Damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
Two professionals slowly and safely cut up a tree blown over during a wind storm.  [Image courtesy University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture]

Materials from fallen or salvaged trees can be used in several ways.

  • Add smaller branches and twigs to the compost pile or cut up for kindling.

  • Branches can also be converted into chips for use as compost, mulch or other landscaping purposes if chipping equipment is available.

  • In some areas, landfills or other waste disposal facilities are available to local residents.

  • Larger branches can be cut and used for firewood.  Folks should keep in mind certain safety considerations before firing up the wood stove or fireplace. Most of us are not highly skilled with a chain saw.  If you don't have the proper equipment or training, then leave it to the professionals.

    Care should also be exercised when burning wood scraps. Although wood scraps can be very good fuel for stoves or fireplaces, some wood is treated with chemicals that can be toxic when burned. Never burn wood scraps that have been treated with wood preservatives or inorganic salts; do not burn treated fence posts for the same reason.

Learn more about Salvaging Timber

Learn more about Chain Saw Safety

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Planting New Landscape Trees

Plant a new tree | Storm Damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas ExtensionSelect the right tree for the right place!  It helps to know the approximate size and shape of the tree when mature. This will help determine where to plant it to minimize pruning because of interference with utility lines, branches rubbing against the house or other buildings, etc.

A few tree species including Chinese elm, silver maple, sycamore, boxelder, Bradford Pear, and various poplars have brittle wood, which is easily broken. These rapid‑growing trees are particularly susceptible to storm damage. Homeowners should be aware of these characteristics and avoid planting such species close to buildings, utility lines, etc. where potential damage could occur. If such trees are already growing in these locations, some preventive practices, such as pruning and bracing, or cabling, may help reduce the potential of storm damage. This is particularly true as the tree grows in size and the weight and surface of the leaf and branch area increases.

Finally, consider characteristics of the tree other than the provision of shade, such as presence of spring flowers, attractiveness to birds, fall color and winter appearance. Through careful selection, it is possible to obtain species that will contribute to the overall landscape in more than just one way.

Learn more about Planting Landscape Trees

Planting a Tree or Shrub (FSA6128)

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Salvaging Woodland Trees After the Storm

Bent pine trees from ice damage | Storm Damage | Disaster Recovery | Environment & Nature | Arkansas Extension
This pine stand has been damaged by ice.  The broken and severely bent trees can be salvaged. [Image courtesy Caroll Guffey, University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture]

Forest landowners should evaluate whether or not a salvage harvest is necessary before accepting a salvage price for their timber or making a hasty decision to harvest all of their forest stand.  

One of the problems in salvaging timber immediately following a natural disaster of any type is that prices fall sharply as the material comes on the market.  These prices can stay depressed for several months.

The following categories of ice-damaged trees will survive for now and can wait to be harvested later when the emergency salvage operations are over and timber prices back to normal:

  • Trees with broken tops which still have four or more living limbs remaining

  • Tree leaning less than 45°

  • Windblown trees with roots still in the ground

Young trees which are bent will often straighten by themselves. 

Research in the Southeast shows that Loblolly pine trees bent less than 40° from vertical can recover within two years. Trees bent 40° - 60° recovered but demonstrated varying amounts of crook and sweep. Only trees bent more than 60° did not recover enough to make acceptable growing stock. Research in Arkansas also supports these findings.

If you decide to conduct a salvage harvest,  take care during the salvage operations. 

Do not bang up or damage any standing, live trees because wounds of this type are ideal for invasion by decay‑causing fungi.  In the case of pines, wounded trees become and remain very attractive to the summer's and next year's bark beetles. Wounded pines could be the center of a bark beetle buildup next year, so it would be prudent to avoid damaging pine stems at any time of year. 

When only a few trees per acre are damaged, it may not be worth saving them considering the low prices normally paid for salvaged trees. Salvage prices are often lower not only because of the crisis situation with so many trees being salvaged but also because ice or wind-damaged trees may have hidden internal damage, such as ring shake, that make them useless for lumber.

Landowners can wait until the following growing season before they harvest to provide the bent trees some time to recover.

Hardwood stands can also suffer damage from ice storms. Most mature hardwood trees with 25% - 75% crown damage will survive, but the growth rate may be reduced. Trees with greater than 75% crown damage will not survive, except for ash, willow, basswood, and poplar. Although a tree is severely damaged, it might take several years for that tree to decline and die.

Wait until the end of the first growing season after the storm to decide which trees to harvest.

Some trees might recover during this time. Landowners interested in managing their hardwood stands for wildlife might consider leaving some damaged or deteriorating trees to provide snags and cavity trees for wildlife.

In immature and planted hardwood stands, trees bent more than 60° are not likely to straighten and can be cut down. However, allow bent trees until mid-summer to recover before taking action. Broken trees and bent trees can be cut to the ground before they get their leaves in the spring to encourage sprouting from the stumps.

It will take a few years before you will be able to determine the extent of the damage caused by a major ice storm. During this time, keep a close eye on the forest. Many different stresses, such as attacks from insects or diseases, can combine to cause serious damage.

For more help, landowners can call on their local County Extension Office, Arkansas Department of Agriculture - Forestry Division, Arkansas Forestry Association, area forest consultants, and other forest management professionals for advice.

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Additional Storm Damage Resources

Source Title
USDA Forest Service - Northeastern Area Tree Decay:  An Expanded Concept
USDA Forest Service - Northeastern Area
University of Florida | Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Storm Damage Prevention and Treatment
University of Florida | Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Georgia | Forest Pests - Bugwood Network | Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health How to Evaluate and Manage Storm-Damaged Forest Areas
University of Georgia | Forest Pests - Bugwood Network | Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health


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