SAVANNAH, Ga. — Behind the bronze statue of Revolutionary War hero Sgt. William Jasper clutching a fatal bullet wound in his side, there’s a new casualty in Madison Square — a mighty live oak tree crashed onto the ground, its roots wrenched from the soil with such force they dislodged chunks of a brick walkway.
Hurricane Matthew bushwhacked Georgia’s oldest city, leaving arboreal carnage everywhere. A tangle of century-old limbs littered Forsyth Park at the edge of the downtown historic district, while debris carpeted the lanes of Victory Drive where an avenue of palms was planted after World War I.
“To see it as trashed as it is, it’s heartbreaking,” said Taylor Henderson, who sat on a park bench Monday in Forsyth Park, where shattered tree trunks and branches cluttered grounds typically kept as neat as a championship golf course. “These trees are so old and they’ve just been uprooted. It’s amazing to think that’s even possible.”
The storm — a Category 2 when it passed Savannah — largely spared the Greek-columned mansions, marble monuments and grand churches that make the city’s collection of 18th and 19th century architecture the largest National Historic Landmark District in the U.S.
The dense urban forest of magnolias, azaleas and gnarled live oaks draped with Spanish moss are as iconic to Savannah as its man-made historic treasures. And those trees took the brunt of Matthew’s wrath. Many were planted more than a century ago after the last major hurricane socked Savannah in 1898.
“What separates us from every other city are the parks and squares and our urban forest,” said Gordon Denney, who keeps Savannah’s greenspaces coiffed and manicured as director of the city Park and Tree Department. “I walked into Forsyth Park with a forester right after the storm and I didn’t know what to say. It was unrecognizable.”
To be sure, once the dead trees and foliage are hauled away, Savannah won’t be anything close to barren. The vast majority of its trees survived the storm.
It’s unknown how many total trees Matthew wrecked. Denney said the city received calls to clean up about 220 that fell from public rights of way across roads or onto houses. That’s out of an estimated 86,000 trees citywide growing in parks, alongside streets and in other city property.
While storm surge brought flooding to some Savannah neighborhoods near waterways, much of the damage to homes and buildings was caused by falling trees. And authorities blamed crashing tree trunks for all three storm-related deaths in Georgia.
Sharon Kelsey tried to sleep as Matthew’s winds battered Savannah. She woke at 3:40 a.m. Saturday when her apartment on the ground floor of a pastel-painted Victorian shuddered.
“I felt the house move and heard a noise. I thought it was a tornado,” Kelsey said Monday from her front porch, peering through treetop branches that covered the entire front of the house from the sidewalk to the roof.
The burly trunk spanned East Waldburg street, arching with barely enough clearance for a passing compact car to squeeze beneath it. The tree took out the bannister and front steps of the house, but Kelsey said no one was injured.
Clearing trees on homes and blocking roads will take priority in Savannah’s recovery, Denney said, meaning city crews will likely get to the parks and squares last.
Downtown residents aren’t waiting on them.
Within a few hours after the storm passed, volunteers started cleaning up. In Monterey Square, where a splintered magnolia trunk plunged perilously close to the monument honoring Gen. Casimir Pulaski, a Polish cavalry officer killed in Savannah during the American Revolution. Leaves and debris were raked into neat piles.
“The squares and parks, those are essentially our backyard,” said Lindy Weimer, who carried a rake and broom to help tidy Forsyth Park on Monday after working on Monterey Square the day before. “We love this city and we love the trees. It’s been a gradual effort — a little bit here and a little bit there.”
Christy Cook, a Savannah tour guide, likes to lead her groups through Forsyth Park so she can identify the various tree species using plaques nailed to their trunks as a cheat sheet. She was there Monday clearing debris with her husband, who used a chain saw to carve a twisted and broken lacebark elm into a pile of logs.
“We still have live oaks and we still have Spanish moss,” Cook said. “It’s going to look a little bald to the locals. But the tourists won’t notice.”