In Central Park, Snow That Collected on Still-Leafy Branches Fells Even Hardy Trees

The storm struck trees of all ages and sizes in Central Park: oaks and elms outside the boathouse, birches and dogwoods near Belvedere Castle, magnolias and mulberries beside the obelisk.

The damage was spread across about half of Central Park’s 840 acres, making it the worst devastation that Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, had seen in his 27 years there.

In all, as many as 1,000 of the park’s trees may be lost to the freak October snowstorm; in contrast, Tropical Storm Irene — which work crews only recently finished cleaning up after — cost the park 125 trees.

“It’s like a bomb blew off,” Mr. Blonsky said, as he conducted a site survey of the park on Sunday. He looked out his car window at a 70-foot oak tree, near the park’s southeast entrance. Only a jagged stump remained.

“Boom,” Mr. Blonsky said softly.

Though the snowfall in the city might have been considered mild by winter standards, a confluence of factors contributed to what Mr. Blonsky called unprecedented damage. Snow became suspended on leaves that had not yet fallen for winter, tugging at limbs and, in some cases, felling entire trees. And because temperatures hovered near freezing, and not well below, the snow was often damp and heavy, creating additional pressure on fragile branches.

A new round of restorations could take months, though workers are already scrambling to ensure that the New York City Marathon can proceed as planned on Sunday.

“Couldn’t have been rain, huh?” Neil Calvanese, vice president for operations of the conservancy, said from the back seat of Mr. Blonsky’s car.

“Couple degrees,” Mr. Blonsky said.

Mr. Calvanese sighed. “Fall colors were just starting to kick in,” he said.

Even the most durable trees struggled to cope. The broad, rough leaves of a London plane tree, Mr. Calvanese said, made it particularly vulnerable to snow accumulation and, consequently, branch fractures.

“It’s a resilient tree,” Mr. Calvanese said, sounding like a coach defending his players after a difficult loss. “They really do hold up well.”

Most of the damage occurred in the area south of 86th Street, where the park receives its highest concentration of visitors. Though the park was open on Sunday — and quite busy, given the improved weather and curiosity about the damage — Mr. Blonsky expressed concern that “hangers,” limbs detached from their trees but still suspended overhead, could prove dangerous if visitors ignored the conservancy’s caution tape. “You’ve got people pushing strollers underneath trees,” he said.

The city’s storm damage was not confined to the park. By 4 p.m. on Sunday, the city had received more than 2,000 calls reporting tree damage. About half had come from Staten Island, and a quarter from the Bronx, said Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city’s parks department. “We’ve never seen a storm like this in October, when the trees are still mostly in full leaf,” Mr. Benepe said. “I’ve never seen such widespread damage.”

Christine Cea, from Emerson Hill, Staten Island, said a quick drive through surrounding neighborhoods revealed the storm’s leafy detritus, strewn along the roadways. “It was disappointing for a green borough,” she said.

For Central Park, the only comparable episode in recent years was a brief but powerful thunderstorm in August 2009, which resulted in the loss of 500 trees. In that case, as in this one, the damage did present a silver lining: the opportunity to improve park aesthetics by examining whether affected areas look better without so many trees. On Sunday, Mr. Blonsky noted that a reduction in trees in the southwest corner of the park, near Columbus Circle, was allowing more sunlight to the area.

But optimism dissipated quickly as Mr. Blonsky approached a contracting crew near Fifth Avenue, where fallen limbs were being loaded into a wood chipper. “You’re going right to the core of what Central Park is about,” he said of the park’s more than 23,000 trees.

Mr. Calvanese dropped his head, as the crew hauled another branch toward the machine.

“I’m not ready for this,” he said.