WASHINGTON – Hurricane Isabel carved a path of destruction through the eastern slopes of the National Arboretum last week,damaging one-third of the trees that shade its famed azalea collection – one of which was more than 200 years old.
Now arborists are faced with the task of cleaning up the remnants of the 117 dead and broken trees that block many of the arboretum's paths and roadways. One task will be filling in a hole in the main path where the 200-year-old white oak was uprooted.
The arboretum's first priority is to clear the roads to allow vehicle access in the case of an emergency,said Scott Aker,spokesman for the National Arboretum.
Aker said he suspects it could be months before the arboretum gets the manpower and the funds it needs to complete the cleanup and reopen all of its collections. The azalea collection,which was hit particularly hard,might not be open until late October.
“Much of it may have to wait until we have the money,” he said. “The damage is just so widespread.”
The National Arboretum,the only federally funded arboretum in the United States,relies on the Agricultural Research Service,an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture,for financial support. As the arboretum approaches the end of its fiscal year Sept. 30,money could be tight,Aker said.
“The money is spent,” he said.
But Sandy Hays,director of information for ARS,said there will be money to repair the damage.
“We always have some year-end money for handling emergency situations like this,” said Hays. “We do have some money to take care of some of the immediate needs at the arboretum.”
In the meantime,about 25 employees and 200 volunteers continue to inventory the damage,setting priorities for work depending on whether the damage creates a hazard.
Arborists will inspect the soil and roots of each damaged tree to decide which ones are worth saving,said arborist Kevin Tunison. Trees that have weak roots or structural damage are susceptible to falling down in the future and might not be saved. Some downed trees,which provide an important habitat for bats and birds,will be left on the ground.
“We have to be able to look up in the tree and say,OK,is this worth saving?” Tunison said.
While the east and north slopes of Mount Hamilton,the arboretum’s highest hill,suffered the most damage,some of the arboretum's most prized collections were almost untouched.
The arboretum's largest tree,a 250-year-old willow oak,is surrounded by debris but did not suffer any structural damage,Aker said. The arboretum's Asian collections had quite a bit of damage,despite grounds crews attempts to prepare the plants for the hurricane.
Without the help of clean-up crews,who worked through the weekend to clear debris,the arboretum would not have been able to welcome visitors again Monday,Aker said.
The arboretum,which covers 446 acres in Northeast Washington on the banks of the Anacostia River,has drawn a half-million visitors so far this year.
On Tuesday,cc Lewis,72,who traveled to the arboretum from her home in Bowie,Md.,said the damage was not as bad as she expected. Lewis,a retired secretary who used to work at a wildlife refuge,said she was interested to see how the hurricane affected many of the plants she has enjoyed seeing in the past.
“I don't think it took away from it at all,” she said. “It made it more interesting.”
Aker said the azalea collection is one of the arboretum’s most popular,attracting many D.C. residents in the spring. The collection,which was once shaded by trees,will be changed the most as a result of the additional sunlight. If azaleas get too much sun,Aker said,they are susceptible to attacks by lace bugs.
“It's kind of sad in a way that our collection that has the biggest draw in the spring — in terms of people coming to see it — got hit,” he said. “The whole character of the azalea collection has certainly changed.”