Utah declares state of emergency after windstorm knocked down thousands of trees

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews replace a splintered power pole along 1500 East, 1300 S. in Salt Lake City while cleaning up from extensive wind damage on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, following a storm that brought hurricane-force winds.

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Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency in response to Tuesday’s historic windstorm, which killed one person and caused significant damage from Salt Lake City to Logan.

Herbert made the announcement Wednesday, after touring parts of Salt Lake City’s hard-hit Rose Park neighborhood. Such a declaration will let the state access federal funds.

Rose Park was one of many areas in northern Utah that sought to restore order Wednesday, after the storm leveled thousands of trees and cut the power to more than 170,000 homes and businesses.

When asked how much money might be pumped into the cleanup effort, Herbert said, “it’s a lot,” and noted officials are still assessing how much.

Salt Lake and Davis counties, along with seven municipalities, have already made emergency declarations, Jess Anderson, the state’s commissioner of public safety, said Wednesday after Herbert’s tour.

As of Wednesday night, 78,000 homes and businesses were still without electricity as Rocky Mountain Power crews jumped from outage to outage. The company has no estimate on when service will be restored to all its Utah customers — but it could be “days" for some. And the outages left many schools from Ogden to the south end of Salt Lake County closed for a second day.

In the Salt Lake City area, winds gusted in the range of 20 to 40 mph. But that’s a far cry from the hurricane-force gale with gusts up to 99 mph that hit the area Tuesday. The winds also killed a man in South Salt Lake.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Truck driver Donald Hardy, 61, was making a delivery at Industrial Injection at 2858 S. 300 West. The winds caught his truck door and slammed it into his face, according to South Salt Lake Police spokesperson Danielle Croyle.

“We’re not sure exactly what happened," Croyle said, “but he fell backward and hit his head.”

Hardy and his wife had sold all their belongings and lived on the road over the past 18 months.

“It’s a pretty sad situation,” Croyle said.

Spencer Hall, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, called it a “historic 40-year storm.” He said all local crews are working on restoring power and a team from Iowa should arrive Thursday to help.

The areas most heavily affected by power outages in Salt Lake County are Millcreek, the Avenues in Salt Lake City and the northeast section of the city, South Salt Lake, Murray, Holladay and northern portions of Taylorsville.

Hall said there are about 250 workers out in the field. On Tuesday, the focus was on connecting transmission lines, hub stations and other backbone pieces. On Wednesday, the work shifted to residential repairs, which will be prioritized by groups that can bring on as many customers as possible with one repair.

According to Christine Kruse, a meteorologist in the Salt Lake City office of the National Weather Service, the Wasatch Front experiences one or two isolated storms like what happened Tuesday every year, “but it’s rare for it to be of this magnitude and this widespread.”

Wind speeds in Centerville were actually slightly higher during a similar storm in December 2011 — 102 mph vs. 99 mph on Tuesday — “but that was much more limited."

She said Tuesday’s destructive winds came as a result of a “very cold air mass over the central part of the United States, and then on top of that, the weather disturbance that was creating these strong winds was strengthening overhead. So there were 60 to 70 mile an hour winds coming out of Wyoming into Utah. That’s exceptionally strong.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers clean up debris at 1700 South 600 East after trees were downed by Tuesday's high winds, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

Cleaning up

Crews went out in force Wednesday across the Wasatch Front to remove fallen trees.

“Now that the winds calmed down, we can go after some of those big, dangerous ones that are on roofs still,” said Cade Dillree, the owner of Wild Bill Tree Service in Bountiful. “And they’re very tricky. ... They’re pretty scary for us because there’s not enough cranes available to assist in lifting these big trees up off the roofs safely."

Salt Lake City’s Sustainability Department announced on Twitter that crews are out clearing roads and removing debris. Residents with limbs from city trees are asked to place them on the side of the road for crews to pick up but to avoid including debris from private properties.

City crews will focus on removing trees blocking sidewalks, roads and bike lanes for now. Once that debris is cleared, efforts will turn to removing downed city-owned trees. After those city trees are hauled off, efforts will shift to helping with debris on private properties.

“We are asking that residents not place storm debris from private property in the street just yet,” said Lorna Vogt, director of Public Services, in a news release issued Wednesday evening. “City crews will be scheduling routes throughout the city to clear private property debris as soon as possible, but with such a high volume of debris, it will take time.”

The city has partnered with United Way to connect residents with volunteers to help clear heavy debris in the meantime. Those needing assistance can dial 211 starting Thursday. Those interested in volunteering should contact National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and fill out a form available at utahvoad.org/find-a-partner-program.

Salt Lake City Forester Tony Gilot estimated Wednesday that the city had lost about 1,000 public trees and an equal number of private trees. That loss, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, will change the “face of Salt Lake City” for “the rest of our lifetimes.”

Later in the day, during a tour of Rose Park with Herbert, the mayor vowed to replant the trees, noting her campaign pledge to place 1,000 new trees on the west side each year she’s in office.

“This storm sets us back a little bit, but I know our commitment to planting trees and growing urban forests are strong," she said. "What’s even stronger is our commitment to helping the residents here.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews replace a splintered power pole along 1500 East, 1300 S. in Salt Lake City while cleaning up from extensive wind damage on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, following a storm that brought hurricane-force winds.

Gilot said that the loss is probably more detrimental “to a lot of the hearts of people who love these trees” than it is to the city’s ecosystem.

“Wind events like this, just like a forest fire, are part of the life of every forest and the urban forest is not an exception to that," he said. “The animals and birds and insects and other life forms that utilize our urban forest still have places to go, and we’re going to regrow.”

Gilot urged people to stay out of the parks while officials assess the damage, noting that some trees that haven’t fallen could still be unstable. And he asked people to exercise patience as the city works to clear the streets, a process he said could take up to a week and a half.

In Ogden, city officials have responded to at least 305 incidents as a result of the storm, most of them tree-related, said Mike McBride, a spokesman in the mayor’s office.

“There’s so much damage it’s crazy,” he said, adding later that the city has 60 parks “and all of them have downed trees and tree debris.”

So many people have taken in green waste that the city had to open a second site to process that debris, he said. Residents are now encouraged to dispose of tree branches at a backup facility at 720 Park Blvd. in Ogden. Drop-offs are free for Ogden residents.

In Farmington, Assistant City Manager Brigham Mellor estimated that about 75% of homes had sustained some form of wind damage.

Mellor said that when a 2011 windstorm hit the city, it took about a week for everything to get cleaned up. This time, he said, there are about three times more green waste. Comparing the storms, Mellor said there’s been more tree damage with this storm but fewer roof shingles ripped off. The biggest difference, he said, is the psychological effects.

“There’s a lot of anxiety on the part of the public; it’s just been a crazy year,” he said. “These families have already been affected by COVID and an earthquake and all this other garbage going on.”

In Salt Lake County, green waste drop-off at the dump will be free starting Friday through noon on Sept. 23. The Wasatch Integrated Waste Management District is waiving fees for green waste delivered to the Davis landfill. The fee waiver applies only to residents, and people must show proof of residency. The Bountiful landfill will accept green waste for free from residents of West Bountiful, Woods Cross, North Salt Lake and Centerville through Sept. 19.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall are joined by other state representatives as they tour the extensive wind damage in the Rose Park neighborhood on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

Neighbors helping neighbors

In Rose Park, professional crews — both from the city and private contractors — were out Wednesday cleaning up dozens of toppled trees with chain saws, backhoes and other equipment.

Juan Alvarado was busy clearing branches from his front yard on Nocturne Avenue after a tree fell onto his house. It knocked over a flagpole and may have put a few holes in the roof of his patio, he said, but otherwise his home was spared major damage.

Alvarado said he and his brother will tackle the main trunk in a few days. “We’re going to try and pull it with a truck,” he said.

Alvarado said he saw neighbors come out with chain saws Tuesday, clearing Nocturne for cars to pass through. On neighboring streets, other neighbors did the same.

A block west, on Capistrano Drive, Matt Lyman saw two oak trees in the parking strip get uprooted. One fell in his side yard, and in the yard of his 85-year-old neighbor, which he was helping clear Wednesday. The other, which he believed had been planted in the mid-1950s when the neighborhood was first developed, is still leaning on the house he shares with his husband, Angel, and their 3-year-old foster daughter, Elena.

Watching the trees topple seemed to happen in slow motion, Lyman said. “Suddenly the grass started to look a little higher than normal,” he said, and then the trees fell over.

The Lymans posted a small sign near the larger uprooted oak: “Landscaping project brought to you by 2020.”

“[Rose Park] is a neighborhood that has always been dependent on each other,” said Carlton Christensen, the chairman of the Utah Transit Authority board who lives in the area.

“Each of these trees were planted by the original homeowners. There weren’t any trees here to begin with," Christensen said. "It’s just a reminder that we’ll start again, and this will be a strong place for us to be neighbors and support one another.”

Salt Lake City residents are being asked to report any city-owned trees — ones planted in parking strips, medians, parks or other city-owned property — that have fallen on houses, power lines or cars. Residents can call 801-972-7818.

Tree damage on private property, the city said on its website, is the homeowner’s responsibility.

In Ogden, McBride said the city is also encouraging people “to be good neighbors and lend a helping hand wherever they can.”

“This is quite a mess for people to clean up," he said, "so every little bit helps.”

Reporters Leia Larsen and Scott D. Pierce contributed to this article.