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Timber, Home Debris Cleanup Under Way After Devastating N.H. Tornado

Mon September 01, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

It cut a dark swath in minutes, 50 miles long and a third of a mile wide, a cyclone of destruction that ripped a wicked, crooked line through 11 towns.

On July 24, a tornado touched down and damaged some 8,400 acres and 150 homes along its destructive path. Several New Hampshire state agencies are coordinating efforts and working with the 11 towns to help with the cleanup of the untold tons of timber and construction debris.

The EF2 tornado sustained winds of up to 135 miles per hour and killed one person with many others injured and dozens of near misses. The tornado moved from Deerfield, where it killed a woman in her home, to Northwood, Epsom, Pittsfield, Barnstead and Alton. It then moved through New Durham, Wolfeboro, Freedom, Ossipee and Effingham.

In addition to the 150 structures damaged along the 50-mile path of the tornado, there also was extensive forested land destruction in parts of Merrimack, Rockingham, Strafford, Belknap and Carroll counties.

150 Homes Ruined

“Some 8,400 acres were affected by the tornado, primarily wooded areas. Obviously, it went through homes. There were nearly 150 homes affected,” said New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) Debris Coordinator Michael Pillsbury. “We estimated that there is about 10,000 cubic yards of construction demolition debris and that has been handled at a local level by individual contractors. Individual homeowners, some of whom have homes that may have been completely destroyed, have hired private contractors to remove the debris.”

Pillsbury added that “the waste stream” — all the building debris, shingles, walls, ceilings, parts of buildings, are being put on roll-off/roll-on dumpsters, mainly by the DPW departments of most of the towns hit.

“It didn’t overwhelm the waste stream,” said Pillsbury. “The DPW or individual homeowners, through hired contractors, are handling disposal of waste.”

Pillsbury said the most immediate concern was the timber lot in the large land areas, which he called “an extremely dangerous situation, primarily because of the way the storm overturned the trees in such a disorderly manner. They are twisted, turned, shattered, lying in multiple directions, creating a lot of pressure to date.”

He said there had been reports that three professional loggers have been injured in cleanup efforts. “We have been counseling homeowners to get expert advice,” he added. “Loggers are telling us that in all the years they’ve been logging up here, they’ve never seen this type of damage.”

Local towns’ DPWs are doing the majority of cleanups on roadways, along with town crews. State highways are being cleared by NHDOT.

Deerfield Hit Hard

The town of Deerfield — hardest hit at the southerly end of where the tornado touched down — is interviewing contractors this month for cleanup bids.

“We are currently negotiating with several contractors. We can’t tell people what to do. We can only advise what’s best for them, for their needs,” said Alex Cote, NHDOT road agent assigned to Deerfield. “We are trying to get one contractor to come in, do the town right-of-ways and work with land owners to work with homeowners who have sustained heavy damage. We have to make sure we are doing the right thing for the town and people’s needs.”

Cote couldn’t put a price on the work, saying it would vary from house lot to house lot. “The price that is paid is going to depend on what each individual homeowner’s needs are. It’s not fair to pin a contractor down to a per acre price,” said Cote. “Each house has sustained individual damage; some trees may be salvageable. You might have two house lots with the same damage, the same acreage, and one may want so many cords of fire wood and the other may not want any fire wood. It’s more cost effective for a company to come in and chip it all.”

He added “six or seven houses have been totally destroyed,” in Deerfield. “Only one we know of is not covered by insurance. People affected in that way, are working with their insurance companies when they rebuild. Cote said that Deerfield and NHDOT are concentrating first on the damage left from the 39 homes that were buckled in some way by the cyclone.

One Person Killed

On the subject of reconstruction in the other 10 towns, Pillsbury added they would advise homeowners as best they could.

“We are trying to let people know who homeowners can avail themselves of to use, to put things back together,” said Pillsbury. “If communities became overwhelmed and couldn’t handle it, it would step up to a larger scale. This particular event crossed through 11 communities and five counties, a relatively narrow, though very destructive storm event, so local communities are able to address those issues. If this all had occurred in one community, we’d have large-scale contractors come into place. But so far, it’s a community-to-community effort.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has responded to the tornado zone, assessing a more than 20-mile stretch of damage.

In Barnstead, the fire chief observed more than 40 homes with significant damage and more than 100 homes with light damage.

The fire chief in Alton told news agencies the tornado struck a dozen streets and FEMA is assisting with a count. The only person killed in the storm was Brenda Stevens, 57, a grandmother who was in her home near Northfield Lake in Deerfield, where she was watching her 3-month-old grandson.

It was the baby’s cries that led rescuers to find him and his grandmother in the wreckage of the home flattened by the storm, which also blew the baby’s grandfather into the yard. Officials have said that being in a void was what protected the infant from harm.

On Aug. 2, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch led a group of state and federal officials, including members of the congressional delegation, to survey the damage the tornado caused.

With FEMA continuing its preliminary damage assessments, Lynch has requested President Bush to declare that New Hampshire suffered a major disaster during the tornado and severe weather, asking for some relief federally.

“FEMA’s assessment has found that more than 100 homes were rendered uninhabitable,” Gov. Lynch said. “I am asking President Bush to issue a disaster declaration, which would provide much needed federal assistance for families as they begin to rebuild their lives. We need to do everything possible to help our families get back on their feet and back into their homes.”

Lynch requested the disaster declaration for five New Hampshire counties — Merrimack, Rockingham, Strafford, Belknap and Carroll.

FEMA offers two main types of assistance: public assistance, which helps the state and communities cover emergency operations and repair costs; and individual assistance, which provides some emergency assistance to individuals, such as for temporary housing, and may cover some home repair costs.

FEMA must complete its damage assessment before the president will issue a disaster declaration. Lynch met with FEMA and state officials to assess ongoing tornado response efforts and recovery planning. He then traveled to Epsom, Barnstead, New Durham and Deerfield to meet with local officials and further inspect the damage.

Cleanup Timber Safely

NHDOT offers these important cleanup tips for any person who has experienced property damage due to fallen timber. It’s important that the debris cleanup be done as safely and quickly as possible.

Some key points to remember for those seeking to remove downed timber:

• Trees that are blown over with tops and roots attached may be good for as long as a year for lumber. Trees that are broken off or are on the ground may be usable for lumber for three to six weeks, depending upon the specific conditions. If the trees are going to be used for firewood or wood chips, they will be usable for longer than six weeks.

• Cutting damaged trees can be very dangerous. Training and safety gear are essential.

• Get professional assistance. Start by contacting your UNH Cooperative Extension county forester at This Web site also has listings of certified arborists, licensed foresters and certified loggers.

• Get references, use a written contract and get proof that contractors have adequate insurance.

• Take pictures of the damage and keep receipts to document the condition of the property for both insurance and tax purposes.

• The damaged trees may or may not continue to have timber value. Get professional advice.

• Follow timber harvesting laws — an “intent to cut” for the timber tax must be filed with the town to remove trees from a woodlot not near a home. Wetlands permits also may be needed. Property owners should document all logging costs, including contracts, cancelled checks and photos, for timber tax compliance.

• Fire danger is not a short-term threat. If downed trees and limbs can’t be removed quickly, they should be cut up so they are in contact with the ground to prevent a future fire hazard.

• While chipping is the most desirable form of disposal, if brush is going to be burned, the piles need to be at least 50 feet away from any structure. A state fire permit from your town forest fire warden or fire department is required to burn brush.

• By law, brush that is not going to be burned needs to be piled at least 100 feet away from any structure and 25 feet away from a property boundary.

• Wood along the sides of the road, even within the right-of-way, is the property of the abutting landowner. Permission is needed before taking the wood. CEG

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