Wye Oak c.1965     After the Storm, June 6, 2002           The felled Wye Oak

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(The Washington Post, Jun 7, 2002)

By Tracey A. Reeves and Hamil R. Harris

Washington Post Staff Writers

Friday, June 7, 2002; Page B01

The beloved Wye Oak, Maryland's centuries old state tree, was felled yesterday by powerful thunderstorms that also downed power lines throughout the Washington area. The storm also ushered in a cold front that promised comfortable temperatures and less humidity.

The storms, which brought at least one tornado sighting in the far reaches of the region, came less than 24 hours after rains and winds damaged dozens of homes in Prince George's County and lightning struck the Maryland State House in Annapolis. Yesterday's storms left about 20,000 homes in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia without power.

On Maryland's Eastern Shore, a storm felled the Wye Oak, the nation's largest white oak, which stood 96 feet tall and had a circumference of 31 feet, 10 inches.

"I was deeply saddened tonight to learn of the loss of one of our state's most historic, beautiful and stately natural resources," Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said in a statement. "For more than 450 years, the Wye Oak has stood strong and tall, surviving winds, drought and diseases of nature, and even more remarkably, the human threats of chain saws and global warming."

It wasn't clear whether the state symbol was toppled by winds or by lightning, said John Surrick of the state Department of Natural Resources. The tree, in the Talbot County village of Wye Mills, had been in decline for many years, he added.

Francis Gouin, a retired chairman of the University of Maryland's horticulture department, said last night that he had taken students to see the stately white oak for almost 30 years.

"The thing was very, very broad," said Gouin, 64, who first visited the tree in 1962. "You had to step down the road to appreciate its dimension."

The tree was also "perfectly rotten" on the inside, he added. "Four people could sit down and play cards inside the Wye Oak. You can put up a card table, sit on the ground and play cards."

After a storm tore a large limb off the tree in 1953, Maryland's governor had the wood fashioned into gavels for state judges. Last night, the fallen giant, its trunk snapped at the base, blocked Route 662.

Although the Wye Oak is gone, its descendants live on. The state forest service grows seedlings from its acorns that are sold around the world, and workers from the Department of Natural Resources were taking cuttings from the tree last night to graft onto root stock.

"We're trying to get some additional genetic stock going," Surrick said. "We're hopeful that we can save the genes of the tree."

Yesterday's storms, which began in mid-afternoon and stretched from the northern Chesapeake Bay in a continuous line through Richmond, also brought heavy rain. Residents in some areas, including Brandywine in southern Prince George's County, reported hail, according to Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Downed power lines and lightning caused buildings in several counties to catch fire, but the blazes were put out quickly, and no injuries were reported.

In Charles County, lightning struck several houses, and in Waldorf and northern Calvert County, slick roads led to at least four accidents, authorities said. The accidents caused only minor injuries, according to authorities.

In Cottage City in central Prince George's, about a dozen families were displaced when trees blew onto their houses, crushing the roofs and causing other damage, said Capt. Chauncey Bowers, a county fire department spokesman.

Across the District line, the Emergency Management Agency said last night that 40 to 50 trees had fallen in the city, mainly in Northeast. No serious injuries resulted, according to the D.C. fire department.

The day's storms also produced at least one reported tornado west of Braddock Heights in Frederick County about 4:45 p.m.

But the storms produced little of the flooding that the Weather Service had expected.

Overall, yesterday's storms knocked out power to 5,900 homes in the District, 4,000 in Prince George's and 300 in Montgomery County, according to Charles Taylor, a spokesman for Potomac Electric Power Co. Anne Arundel County was hit particularly hard, with 7,400 homes in the dark, according to the Associated Press.

The storms also left about 2,100 people in Charles and St. Mary's counties without power, a relatively low number given the severity of the storms, said Ann Knott, a spokeswoman for Southern Maryland Electrical Cooperative. Knott said lightning may have caused the outages. In Northern Virginia, about 1,200 homes in Loudoun and Fauquier counties were affected, according to Dominion Virginia Power.

Heavy rain flooded streets in southern Prince George's and parts of Southern Maryland, even as homeowners were shoring up houses damaged by Wednesday's storms and removing debris.

The Rev. Ed Maxwell, of Suitland Road Church of Christ, was teaching Bible class about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday when the storm came through his Clinton neighborhood. His home was fine, but the concrete_block ranch house next door had a gaping hole in it, its rooms exposed after a 100_year_old oak tree slammed into the structure.

Wednesday evening's storms also brought the lightning that struck the Maryland State House, causing the dome's sprinkler system to spray 1,000 gallons of water a minute onto the exterior of the dome.

"Much as our engineers want to brag, Ben Franklin beat them to the punch," joked Rick Pecora, an assistant secretary at the state Department of General Services.

Franklin designed the 28_foot_tall, 2 1/2_inch_thick wrought_iron rod that has stood atop the State House for two centuries. Thanks to the State House's sturdy construction, damage House was minimal, amounting to a few blown fuses and a broken heat detector.

The Wye Oak wasn't as fortunate. Gouin, the retired horticulture professor, wondered what the state would do about an honorary state tree.

"I don't know a white oak that comes anywhere close in size," said Gouin, who last visited the Wye Oak two weeks ago. "I don't know what they're going to do."

Staff writers Nelson Hernandez, Michael Amon, David A. Fahrenthold, Eric M. Weiss and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


By Frank D. Roylance and Chris Guy Sun Staff Originally published June 7, 2002

Maryland's oldest citizen, the majestic, 460-year-old Wye Oak, was toppled yesterday by a violent thunderstorm on the Eastern Shore, part of a barrage of bad weather that raked the state with torrential rains, high winds and as many as three tornadoes. The massive tree - about 100 feet tall, with a trunk 31 feet in circumference - was the National Champion white oak, the largest of its species and one of the most famous trees in the United States. It was found sprawled across Route 662 in the tiny village of Wye Mills, Talbot County. Work crews quickly fired up their chain saws and began to cut and move the huge limbs to clear the road. The tree had been growing there since the 1500s, nearly a century before Europeans came to Maryland. It had survived storms, drought, disease, insects, air pollution and road paving. "It's like a little piece of everybody's life went down with it," said Gail Dadds, who grew up less than a mile away and went last night to view its remains. "I've lived around this tree for most of my life. It's so sad to see it like this." State highway workers roped off the area with yellow crime-scene tape. But dozens of people parked haphazardly around the village, then hurried up the street to grab souvenirs and snap photographs. Some just stood and stared at the fallen giant. "It must have been one devil of a wind that took it down," said a saddened Frank Gouin, who got the news from a Preston nurseryman. A retired former chairman of the horticulture department at the University of Maryland, Gouin produced the first successful clones of the tree two years ago. "I love that old tree," he said. "It's a majestic thing." He promised that bud wood would be collected from the downed tree today, and efforts will be made to produce as many clones - genetically identical oak saplings - as possible. David Milarch, president and founder of the Champion Tree Project International, said yesterday that one of the 30 Wye Oak clones created since 2000 would be offered to the state of Maryland for planting in the same tiny park where the old tree went down. "We will be more than glad to assist in any way we can," he said. "That is one of the most famous trees in the 13 colonies. What a tragedy. This is a real shock to me." Two of the first Wye Oak clones were planted in April at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home in Virginia. The others - 18 to 24 inches tall - are growing at the state forest nursery in Preston and in Oregon. Yesterday's torrential downpours, intense lightning and hail caused local flooding, cut visibility and forced motorists in some areas to pull over or to seek shelter under overpasses from pelting ice. Wind gusts downed ordinary trees and power lines across the region, disrupting an electrical system that was still being repaired after Wednesday night's storms. Funnel clouds were spotted shortly before 3 p.m. in the Fort Meade area in Anne Arundel County, and later in Calvert County and over the Chesapeake Bay. "There were reports that employees at NSA saw the two funnels but they never hit ground," said Anne Arundel County Fire Division Chief John M. Scholz. A spokeswoman at the National Security Agency confirmed that workers there "were asked to move away from the windows and toward the center of the building" for safety. They were away from their work stations for 10 to 15 minutes, she said. "As far as I can recall, this is a first." A second twister was detected on radar an hour later, moving out of West Virginia into Frederick County near Boonsboro. The weather service reported it touched down north of Frederick, ripping up several trees and construction trailers. Another was spotted just before 6 p.m. near Lochearn, in Baltimore County, headed east across northern Baltimore and northeastern Baltimore County. State officials said they were unsure whether the Wye Oak was struck by lightning, succumbed to high winds or both as the band of severe storms raced across Kent Island and through tiny Wye Mills. "One guy said he saw lightning, somebody else thought it was the wind," said Stark McLaughlin, a Department of Natural Resources forester. "Either way, it's totally gone now. It even had acorns this year. But we've known for a very long time that, even doing everything humanly possible, we couldn't save it." Its limbs had been shored up with cables, but a massive branch cracked and crashed to the ground in June 1984. Wood from that and other fallen hunks were carved into statues, gavels for Maryland judges and other ceremonial gifts. Yesterday, large chunks of concrete that had been poured around the trunk to help support it lay nearby. Rot that had gnawed at the tree for years was clearly visible. Jennifer Reburn, a second-grade teacher at Centreville Elementary, stooped in a driving rain, gathering sticks, twigs and leaves. She was thinking of how she would explain the loss to 23 pupils whose school unit on trees culminated last month with a visit to the Wye Oak. "They're all going to be devastated by this," Reburn said. The Wye Oak was one of the last surviving members of the original crop of champion trees identified in 1940, according to American Forests, a conservation group. Terry Mock, executive director of the nonprofit Champion Tree Project in Traverse City, Mich., which clones the nation's largest specimens, said it was also the second national champion to fall in a storm soon after being cloned for the first time. The first was a 450-year-old silver buttonwood in Key West, Fla., which fell in a 1999 hurricane. "All these trees are going to die," he said. "Our job is to save their genetics before they do." Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a statement: "For more than 450 years the Wye Oak has stood strong and tall, surviving winds, drought and diseases of nature, and even more remarkably the human threats of chain saws and global warming. "Someone once wrote that 'a tree is a child of the earth, and to the earth it must inevitably fall.' There is some comfort tonight that in the case of our beloved Wye Oak, nature has had the last say." Yesterday's storms produced wind gusts estimated at up to 50 mph and 1.45 inches of rain in 20 minutes in Westminster, according to Julie Arthur, a weather service meteorologist at the forecast office in Sterling, Va. It was a scary afternoon for many in Maryland. The tornado warnings, wind and threatening skies prompted Barbara Bisset, principal at the 5th District Elementary School in northern Baltimore County, to herd teachers and children into the school's basement. "It was so black outside," Bisset said. They were joined by two strangers who had stopped their car to seek shelter. "They said they felt it was too dangerous out on the road, so they stayed with us for a few minutes, thanked us and left," Bisset said. The worst of the storms appeared to target Anne Arundel County. A jet skier in the Chesapeake Bay off Sandy Point was rescued from rough waves just before the storm, Scholz said. Lightning hit several utility poles, trees and houses in the central part of the county, from Annapolis to Glen Burnie, officials said. There were no fires. A house in Glen Burnie was hit by a falling tree, but no one was injured. Several residential streets - including Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard in Severna Park - were closed by downed power lines and trees. Repair crews with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. were already on the job when the storm struck. They had restored power to most of the 36,000 customers who lost their electricity in Wednesday night's storms, when their "to-do" list suddenly began to lengthen. "The numbers are going back up," said BGE spokeswoman Rose Kendig. About 15,000 outages were counted by 10:40 p.m., with 10,000 in Anne Arundel County. There were 1,800 more in Baltimore County and 1,200 in Montgomery County, according to another BGE spokeswoman, Kathleen Nolan. More damage was expected overnight, as the weather service warned of a potential for wind gusts as high as 70 mph. Forecasters had advised Marylanders to expect heavy rains and thunderstorms. Heat and humidity were building during the day, a slow-moving cold front was approaching from the west, and a low pressure center was tracking northeastward along the front - a recipe for severe storms. Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt and Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun