Monday, November 7, 2011

Raining Bullets: Severe Hailstorms

Forecast: Thunderstorms today, with a chance of large hail. Which reminds me...

One bright, sunny day, I was standing in the front yard innocently picking bagworms off an arborvitae, when I heard something go plop behind me. I turned, and found a golfball-size hailstone lying in the grass. Just one. I checked the sky, and the only cloud was a modest snow-white thunderhead miles away.

If that hailstone had landed on the roof—or my head—it would have made a good-sized dent.

But when it comes to hailstorms, it isn't always the size of the hailstone that counts, as much as the volume...and the delivery system. We found that out last spring.

Late one quiet afternoon, my sister called, half shouting, wanting to know if the storm had reached us yet. Barely able to hear hear her over the roar on her end of the line, I thought, "What storm?" And suddenly a wall of pea-size hail hit our house, driven in a horizontal wave by 60-90 mph winds.

For more than 20 minutes, the hail hammered away, first from the west before turning around and coming back at us from the east. For more than 20 minutes, we couldn't see out the windows. For more than 20 minutes, we felt utterly one often does during an extreme-weather event.

When the storm finally ended, the yard looked like a giant salad bowl, ankle-deep in green leaves. The trees had been stripped of a good two-thirds of their foliage. "Hail fog" caused by ice lying on warm ground drifted around until almost noon the next day, making some neighborhoods appear to be on fire.

The dramatic tree defoliation was community-wide. (As for roof damage, one local roofer reported that he had two years of work lined up as a result of the storm.)

But what about those trees? I hoped they would refoliate from secondary buds. But immediately after the storm, a brutal heatwave set in that further stunned landscapes already stressed by a long-running drought. So the trees stood partially denuded all summer long, many with barely enough leaves to keep them alive.

In retrospect, the defoliation might have been a partial blessing. With fewer leaves to support, the trees could get by on less water in record-setting drought conditions. But we missed the shade during the brutal summer, and still worry that the battered trees won't make it through what is predicted to be a dry winter ahead.

All in all, I've gained a greater respect for the awesome power of hail. There is little you can do to prepare a landscape for such a hit. The best we could do all summer was deep-soak the trees on a regular basis—and keep fertilizer away from their root zones. [For information on fertilizing damaged trees, check out To Feed Or Not To Feed, That Is The Question.] And with a dry winter predicted, you can bet I'll be dragging out soaker hoses while togged out in cold-weather gear.

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