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October storm took heavy toll on Phillips Academy elms

Phillips Academy's class of 1957 donated six mature elms. Phillips Academy's class of 1957 donated six mature elms. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / December 1, 2011
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In the late evening hours of Oct. 29, Paul Sialatis, a grounds worker at Phillips Academy in Andover, was among those called in to clear walkways and streets blocked by large tree limbs felled by the heavy, wet snow from a rare fall nor’easter.

As Sialatis tried to make quick work of the downed trees and limbs with a chainsaw, he realized the situation was getting grimmer by the second.

“[Tree debris] was coming down on the road, walkways, everywhere. You hear the crack, and then the poof,’’ Sialatis said recently, as he took a break from feeding broken tree limbs into a wood chipper. “I saw three come down in front of us. You hear the crack, and then down, crack, down, crack, down, and I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ . . . With 10 seconds in between them.’’

The storm swept through parts of the state that Saturday evening into Sunday morning, leaving thousands without power for days and forcing many communities to postpone or cancel Halloween activities. While the 4 to 5 inches of snow that fell in Andover may seem unimpressive on paper, Phillips Academy officials say it was enough to cause the worst damage to the school’s vast collection of trees in recent history.

“I’d never seen anything like this before,’’ Sialatis said. “The [2008] ice storm wasn’t this bad; it was small branches. This, the branches are huge.’’

Taking the biggest wallop was the school’s signature collection of elms, which have been a prominent and symbolic fixture on campus since its founding 233 years ago. By the time it was over, the storm damaged approximately 125 trees in the main campus area, 50 of which had to be taken down, said Ron Johnson, grounds and project manager at Phillips. Of those that were removed, 35 were young elms, some having just been planted five years ago, and others that were around 20 years old.

All told, the cleanup is estimated to cost the school $75,000, including pruning of damaged trees, which will go on through spring, Johnson said. Replanting the lost trees would be an additional $100,000, making this the most expensive storm in the school’s history, he said.

This nor’easter arrived nearly 90 years after the November ice storm of 1921, which, up until Oct. 29, stood as the most devastating storm to the trees on campus, Johnson said. In mere hours, the October storm also destroyed more elms than the average 15 per year that were being lost on campus in the 1950s and 1960s to Dutch elm disease, a highly destructive, quick-moving fungus that wiped out millions of elm trees throughout North America for most of the last century before an effective fungicide was developed.

In a 1961 Boston Globe article, it was ominously predicted that if Phillips Academy continued to lose 15 elms a year to the disease, “it will be bare of old elms in less than 30 years.’’

As it was, the school grounds housed a reported 900 elms in 1961. Today, 120 of the original American elms still stand, and, prior to the Oct. 29 storm, there were an additional 120 that have been planted since. Phillips Academy has one of the largest elm collections in North America, according to Kris Bachtell, vice president of collections and facilities for The Morton Arboretum in Illinois.

What made this latest storm so devastating for trees, and elms in particular, was a chain of weather events that led to a late foliage season, said Stephen Schneider, manager of horticulture at Arnold Arboretum.

“We had an incredibly moist spring and summer, we never had any kind of drought, and we had a moist fall, and the temperatures stayed favorable. One thing led to another,’’ Schneider said.

“Most of the leaves not only were in the trees, but they were still green. We didn’t have those cold nights that help the trees push out their colors and then the leaves fall. . . . Last winter we got five or six snow storms that dumped a foot of snow, and we didn’t have that kind of damage to trees because there wasn’t that surface area.’’

Johnson said he knew the trees were in big trouble when he got a call from the foreman the evening of the storm saying that “everything was cracking.’’

“We’ve never seen this type of destruction since I’ve been here, or anyone in the grounds crew has been here,’’ Johnson said. “On the young elm trees, they put on so much growth, that’s part of the issue too. Typically younger trees hold on to their leaves later in the fall because they’re actively growing . . . and when the snow came, they just couldn’t stand up to the weight of the snow.’’

After school officials posted a slideshow online of the destruction and cleanup, it quickly received about 70,000 hits, mostly from shocked alumni concerned about the beloved elms, said spokeswoman Amy Morris. Several inquiries have already come in about donations for new trees, said Ann Harris, director of class, reunion, and parent giving at the school.

Members of the class of 1957 moved quickly to donate six mature elms that were all planted last week in front of Samuel Phillips Hall, on the main area of campus, so they can “look decent’’ by the time commencement ceremonies are held in June, Harris said.

The tree donation is part of a $55,000 pledge from the class to commemorate their upcoming 55-year reunion, and it is contingent on a challenge to the school to match that by way of additional donations, Harris said.

“I’m just amazed at how our alumni step up when there’s a need,’’ she said. “They lived here for four years during adolescence. They have spent a very formative time of their lives on this campus. It’s a beautiful campus and they treasure that, and they continue to treasure that long after they leave.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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Damage done 240 Number of elms on campus before Oct. 29 storm 50 Approximate number of trees lost to the storm (removed) 35 Number of elms lost in storm $75,000 Estimated cost of cleanup and pruning;
replanting will add to the total $900-$4,000 Cost range of planting individual elms Source: Phillips Academy