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Hug a tree before its gone
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Exactly a week ago, Covington was bracing for a storm as dusk was coming on. Tree-bending winds whipped through town, thunder made the rafters shudder, and we expected a torrent of rain to follow, possibly a damaging combination of heavy rain and hail and ferocious winds.

Sallie and Jonathan Paschal were sitting on their Conyers Street front porch, a bit wary of the blow-y spectacle that was unfolding. Suddenly, they heard a loud crack followed by a crash and saw the street lighted up by sparking electrical wires.
Peering down the street, they could tell the damage had occurred a couple of houses east of theirs, at Cathy and Bill Laseter's home.

Sallie picked up the phone and called Cathy, momentarily unaware that anything had happened. The whipsawing wind had cracked off a huge portion from the top of the towering tree, so much that the entire tree won't survive.

At about 7 p.m., power along portions of Conyers Street, East Street and Thompson Avenue went off, and city workers, fire and rescue personnel showed up faster than you could snap your fingers, by all accounts. They worked feverishly to restore power by somewhere between 1 and 2 a.m. In the meantime, a power outage party had formed on the Laseters' back porch, making the best of a bad situation.

But there's more.

Close to 7 p.m., Covington City Councilman Mike Whatley, with Billie Jean at the wheel, was heading west on Conyers Street. About the time they reached the Laseter home, a large portion of the falling tree thumped down on their car, cracking the windshield and damaging the hood.

Mike called for Billie Jean to put the car in reversely to get out from under the tree, and it worked. Still, they were surrounded by sparking electrical wires and remained trapped until rescue personnel freed them. They suffered no serious injuries, but are walking around with whiplash, bruising and overall soreness. "If we had been even 1-2 seconds ahead of where we were, the outcome would have been a lot worse," Mike says.

Friday night was also disastrous for one of Covington's most beautiful old oaks in the Conyers Street front yard of Jonnie and George Hart. They weren't home, but later would find that a huge limb had fallen and covered one whole side of the yard. They're calling in an arborist to determine if the tree will be able to survive, but Jonnie fears the worst. They lost a twin to this tree some years ago. "We were told to keep the dead limbs trimmed, but the limb that fell wasn't dead," she said.

Covington is losing an increasing number of the large old oak trees that contribute significantly to the tree canopy that keeps us cool and green - and award-winning in that Covington has been named a Tree City USA. City code requires a canopy management plan, and a new canopy study is to be done within the next year or so, according to City Arborist Kevin Sorrow.

A Tree Preservation Fund, a line item in the city budget, contains $65,000 for tree replacement, removal, stump grinding, Arbor Day plantings and things like the new wells around landscape trees around the Square.

Most of the trees going down are water oaks, according to Sorrow, a variety of oak that begins to decline in well under 100 years. You can recognize the water oak for its short leaves that are wider at the end with three un-formed lobes. Combine a short-lived water oak with the damaging effects of protracted drought, fierce wind and too much rain, and you've got a disaster waiting to happen. A water oak that falls on city property is replaced with a hardier and longer-lived specimen like the red or white oak. Unfortunately, most tree loss doesn't occur on city property, but Sorrow says he is always looking for new places to plant more.

County arborist Debbie Bell, a landscape architect and staff to the county's Historic Preservation ordinance, came up with this interesting story about water oaks in city landscaping. It was back in the 1930s when cities began the business of landscaping streets and parks.

Water oaks were the most readily available tree at the time, so water oaks were planted in great numbers and became the most common tree around many towns. With the aging of this mass of trees, cities like Columbus and Griffin, according to Bell, are suffering a significant loss of tree canopy. She recommends that individual homeowners contact the Georgia Forestry Commission Community and Urban Forestry Division, staffed by locally known Beryl Budd, with questions about the maintenance or loss of aging trees.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.