Even as residents begin to rebuild their homes and lives after Hurricane Sandy, residents in South Queens areas flooded by the storm surge on Oct. 29 are noticing something strange and worrying.
Most of the decorative evergreen shrubs that dot the front lawns of private homes are turning brown and some have lost their leaves and died. The question on everyone’s mind is “why?”
The answer may lie in the salty storm surge Sandy sent onshore.
While plants need water to survive, saltwater is very harmful to most of them. The salt left behind by the water when it evaporates or is ingested by the plant can dry out plant cells and kill them, or at least make it more difficult for plants to soak up necessary nutrients. Plants that do not die are often stunted because they shift their energy to fight the effects of the salt.
It is not uncommon for plant life to fall victim to ocean water.
On Little San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, nearly every tree was brown one week after Hurricane Irene. The reason? The saltwater that flooded the entire island during the storm killed them. Similar events were reported in Alaska, Thailand and Japan after tsunamis and in Mississippi and Texas after hurricanes Katrina and Ike.
So did Hurricane Sandy kill Howard Beach’s evergreen bushes? And if so, what will happen next month when spring comes and the neighborhood’s shady canopy is scheduled to return?
“It’s entirely possible that saltwater could have killed them,” Karl McCoy, a gardener at the Queens Botanical Garden, said of the evergreens. “It could also have affected some of the trees.”
McCoy noted that the city is aware of the effects of salt on plant life. The Sanitation Department is often careful about where it uses rock salt after snowstorms out of concern it could seep into planters on sidewalks and kill or injure trees and shrubs.
And the city says it took action after Sandy.
Immediately after the storm, the Parks Department flushed out some planters in flooded areas to limit the amount of saltwater trees and plants were exposed to.
And trees in affected areas, including Howard Beach, Broad Channel, the Rockaways and Long Island City, are being watched, a department spokesman confirmed, adding that the true nature of the damage to the city’s flora will not be known immediately.
“It’s too early in the season to see damage,” the spokesman said. “Plants and trees are only starting to bud.”
The department said trees and shrubs would have to be monitored through mid-summer because some may bloom in spring, but die later.
But McCoy said not every plant is harmed by saltwater, and those common along the shoreline are typically immune to it.
“There are some plants that can survive in that environment along the shore,” McCoy explained.
He added that plant life near the beach can be affected by the salt without being flooded by seawater. Sea breezes can cause salt to blow onshore and settle in the soil.