New York City's Neglected Killers: Trees

'Times' reveals overstretched, dangerous system of risk management
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted May 14, 2012 1:17 PM CDT
An employee of the Central Park Conservancy marks off an area of downed branches in Central Park in New York, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(Newser) – Over the past decade, at least 10 lawsuits have been filed over deaths or injuries from falling tree limbs or branches in New York City, a disturbing problem kept rather quiet by the city. In an extensive piece on the subject—the first in a series of three—the New York Times takes a look at a few of the horrifying cases and discovers that park workers are often not trained to spot telltale signs of rotting trees, and that the parks department has not kept up with the science of managing aging trees. Sometimes ailing trees are not dealt with even after limbs start falling off—and the problem comes to light at a time when the city is cutting back on the budget for tree care and safety.

When it comes to the question of whether the city is responsible for keeping pedestrians safe from trees, the courts have in many cases sided with the victims: New York City has paid out millions so far, and is expected to pay more. More findings from lawyers and investigators involved with the lawsuits, revealed by the Times:

  • In one case, a dangerous limb had been spotted and a park official believed workers “got” it taken care of, but in reality they had only “got” an email notifying them of the limb. It later critically injured a man. Workers never got around to dealing with the limb, but they did have time to prepare trees for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
  • In a few cases, workers have allegedly failed to notice clear risk signs; in one situation, a tree that seriously injured a woman was so rotted that its trunk was “gooey,” but workers hadn’t noticed.
  • Trees on city streets are only pruned every 15 years; they used to be pruned every seven years. And inspections of park trees are far from thorough, basically involving untrained employees simply peering up to spot obviously risky limbs. “It is a visual look from the ground,” says one worker. Another parks superviser testified that trees are only inspected when complaints come in.
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