State

Early storm more damaging because limbs still leafy

Torrential Tuesday gave way to a relatively calm Wednesday for rain-drenched Modestans.

"This morning is nice and quiet so far," said Modesto Fire Department Battalion Chief Hugo Patino, a few hours before the clouds gave way to a partly sunny sky. "The wind stopped blowing so bad and curtailed our problem."

No measurable rain fell in Modesto on Wednesday, a day after the city received an October single-day record of 1.82 inches, according to the Modesto Irrigation District.

It was the 13th wettest day in the city since the MID began keeping those statistics on July 1, 1888.

What it means for the water-starved area is anyone's guess.

Before Tuesday, a monthly rainfall total of 1.5 inches or more in October had occurred only 15 times since 1888. In 11 of those years, rainfall totals have surpassed the seasonal average of 12.15 inches.

That little fact means virtually nothing, said Walt Ward, assistant general manager for water operations at the MID.

He said it's way too early to predict what will happen the rest of the rainfall season based on one stormy day in October.

"I hope it's not the whole show," he said.

He pointed to a wet October in 1975 in which 1.17 inches fell. Over the next 24 months, just 11.8 inches followed amid the worst two-year drought in city history.

"For us, (Tuesday's storm) didn't provide any benefit," he said. "The wind wreaked havoc, but it didn't help with our water supply.

"What we rely on is snowpack and spring melt. ... We want a white winter and a wet one. We still have a long ways to go," he said.

Tuesday's record rain was somewhat of an afterthought Wednesday given the thousands of leaf-packed trees that had fallen or shed limbs or branches under the pressure of wind gusts reaching 40 mph.

Steve Lumpkin, the city's parks operations manager whose responsibilities carry over to the forestry department, said there were 850 locations citywide Tuesday where a tree fell over or limbs were broken.

He estimated that the city had 100,000 street or park trees, in addition to an unknown number of privately owned trees.

Had there been a similar storm in November or in the winter, the relative chaos that had hundreds of city, county and irrigation district workers scrambling to help residents this week would not have occurred.

He said the main factor behind the fallen trees was the large amount of leaves left on the trees.

"We don't normally get these storms until late November when leaves are off the tree," said Lumpkin, whose crews worked late Tuesday and started back early Wednesday. "When there's a full canopy, the wind can't go through it."

He said deciduous trees, those that shed their leaves on a seasonal basis such as the Modesto ash, were susceptible to problems. There are myriad reasons that would make a tree vulnerable, including tree crown rot, roots that remain near the surface and other unseen issues.

Lengthy cleanup

It will take about three weeks to clean up the debris, he estimated, and cautioned residents that if they have issues with their city trees to call 342-2249.

"We're not recommending citizens get a ladder," he said. "If the limb is still attached, call and it should be taken care of in a couple of days."

If a big branch does fall off, he said, residents should drag it into the gutter.

Although damage big and small was widespread, the coordinated effort between city departments was echoed by more than a few people.

"I've been with the city for 32 years, and we have not had this volume of calls except with El Niño with all that flooding," Lumpkin said, referring to storms in early 1997 that displaced more than 2,500 people in Stanislaus County. "El Niño was equal to this.

"This was a huge event, but we were prepared for this. We had a plan and program in place."

Gary Hayward, Stanislaus County roads superintendent, said his crew worked until after midnight and was back at it early Wednesday clearing debris and tending to a few flooded roads.

"We're getting some flooding calls, but it's a lot calmer today," he said. "We survived pretty good."

Bee online editor Brian Clark can be reached at bclark@modbee.com or 578-2362.

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