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Winter's Weight Downs Trees Across North, South Costing Millions

With record-breaking cold spells strangling much of the country this winter, severe snowfalls and ice storms have been a burden not only on commuters and first responders, but also on the trees and vegetation.

In Richmond County, Ga., the cleanup effort and removal of damaged trees, branches and debris will cost approximately $8.6 million, certified county arborist Sam Smith said.

"We're in bad shape," Smith said. "We're trying to clean it up now."

With widespread tree damage throughout the state and much of the South caused by the Feb. 12-13 ice storm, Smith said some of the cleanup will be done by crews awarded contracts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a State of Emergency before the February storm after thousands of motorists were stranded overnight on Atlanta highways in late January due to an ice storm.

"It was probably the worst storm in my lifetime," Smith said. "It's been the worst in 50 to 60 years, I've seen."

There has been a major safety concern with loose hanging branches, but preparation for such a rare occurrence wasn't something the county planned for, according to Smith.

"Hindsight is 20/20," he said, adding most of the cleanup that exists on municipal roads is the municipality's responsibility; if damage occurs on a state road, it falls under the Georgia Department of Transportation's responsibilities.

In February, the famous Eisenhower Tree located at Augusta National Golf Club, where The Masters Tournament is held, was felled as a result of the ice storm that hit Augusta, Ga.

In addition to damage in the South, the Northeast has also seen widespread tree damage.

The 2013-14 winter season has been one of the harshest and coldest in recent memory for one Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official working the Philadelphia area.

"With the amount of events and storms, it's been a harsh one compared to the previous two years," Department Spokesman Charles Metzger said.

District 6 of PennDOT, which includes the counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia, originally budgeted $22.4 million for winter maintenance but had to reallocate funds from other cost functions, bringing the budget to $31.5 million, according to Metzger.

"We budget for all the normal kind of activities like (labor), equipment and supplies," he said. "This has been by far a very harsh winter."

An average annual salt usage for District 6 is usually around 40,000 tons, Metzger said, adding this season, the department has already utilized 160,000 tons.

With ice clinging to the branches of trees and the snow piling up, tree damage is not uncommon in the winter months, Metzger said.

If a tree breaks or falls along a state roadway, the state department is in charge of clearing the path for motorists.

"If that happens, we bust out our chainsaws and cut them up," he said.

Metzger said the department handles tree damage on all state roads during the winter and does not subcontract the services.

Once the trees are cleared, the department tries to chip them back into the wooded area or natural locations nearby.

Warrington Township, Pa., Chief Financial Officer Barry Luber said that if a tree falls on a state road, the township will remove it just to clear the roadway, but the remainder of the process will be done by PennDOT.

"The township is responsible to remove the trees from the (municipal) roadways," Luber said.

If there is a downed power line involved, the township will contact the utility company to shut down the lines so that they can get to those trees.

"They must come out and turn off the juice, and we cut down the trees," he said. "We ultimately pay the price, do the work and pay the bill for anything involved."

Luber said if a tree falls from private property, the township would remove it from the roadway then bill the homeowner for those services at a later date.

According to Certified Arborist Ruth S. Foster, safe tree care should be done by a professional to prevent damage, injury or death.

See More Safety Tips From Foster:

During the late fall when the leaves have fallen, homeowners should have a professional inspect their trees for balance and weight issues. Snow and ice accumulation adds weight to branches and can cause breakage, Foster said, adding trees need to be balanced and able to stand on their center.

Inspections for rot should be done each year. In addition, the shape and angle of branches can also add to a likeliness of breakage, she said. Branches growing at a sharp angle and "V" shape have a high tendency to crack under added stress. A trained professional will be able to identify which branches are at risk.

Proximity of trees near homes, streets and public areas should be surveyed when conducting annual inspections in order to protect property and human life.

Structural pruning should never be done by anyone other than a certified professional, arborist or forester. Chainsaw accidents are common and often lead to severe injury or death, Foster said.