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Remembering the winds of 2011: Utah’s ‘most devastating wind event’ in decades happened 1 year ago

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This was the most devastating wind event that we have seen in decades in Utah in terms of debris and cleanup. We are fortunate that nobody was killed and that Davis County is more prepared to deal with these events in the future. – Joe Dougherty, Utah Division of Emergency Management

FRUIT HEIGHTS — It's been a year since hurricane-force winds howled in Davis County, toppling thousands of trees and power lines, cutting paths of devastation along city streets and damaging emergency communication systems.

As recently as last week the windstorm was continuing to claim victims, with ravaged trees being pulled out of the Davis Park Golf Course to make way for new plantings.

The winds began their havoc in the early morning hours of Dec. 1 and did not abate for nearly two days.

More than a dozen schools closed. Highways were idled.

Households and businesses from Salt Lake City north to Ogden were plunged into darkness in the chill of early December — some darkened for days — while crews maneuvered through the wooden wreckage of felled limbs and severed trunks to reach power poles in backyards.

"We've had these events through the years, these high winds," said Centerville assistant police chief Paul Child. "This one was sustained for a longer period of time. The high velocity wind just kept coming and coming and coming."

The 2011 Davis County windstorm far eclipsed the public damage wrought by Salt Lake City's freak tornado in August of 1999, which federal emergency officials say caused about $700,000 in damage to infrastructure once the bills were tallied.

"This was the most devastating wind event that we have seen in decades in Utah in terms of debris and cleanup," said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management. "We are fortunate that nobody was killed and that Davis County is more prepared to deal with these events in the future."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed Davis County $3.6 million for damage to infrastructure alone — ripped up sidewalks, ruined police cars and school buses, damaged communication towers and for the replacement of hundreds of traffic signs and power poles. When insurance kicked in, $6.1 million was paid to repair or replace government property plundered by the wind, said Davis County emergency manager Ellis Bruch.

In Bountiful, for example, a report logs that 19 different city-owned facilities were damaged, 84 wooden power poles and 22 transformers were destroyed or had to be replaced, and 5,000 feet of power lines was impacted by the wind.

"It was amazing," said Aric Jensen, director of planning and economic development for Bountiful. "I've never seen anything like that."

Winds at 102 mph were clocked in Centerville — or the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane.

Child noted that the roof on the public works facility's salt shed on the east side of Legacy Highway was completely blown off, hurled across all four lanes and the highway's median to land on the other side.

The city's mayor, too, joined other residents in Davis County who were trapped for a time in their homes by trees collapsed on roofs, poking into living rooms and kitchens, or trees and limbs slammed on top of cars.

"In one sector of the city, at the north end, 100 percent of the homes had damage," Child said.

Bruch said when the ensuing whirlwind of private property damage claims were filed, the insurance industry paid out $75 million in Davis County alone to home and business owners for damage incurred in the two day windstorm.

The wind caused its share of disruptions in Salt Lake City and north into Ogden — where Weber State University students were knocked to the ground by strong gusts and flying debris prompted the closure of its main campus.

Davis County, however, was hardest hit, with its sloping mountains and multiple canyons that propelled the maelstrom to cities below.

"In Centerville we tend to get the brunt of it — Farmington, too," said Child. "It has to do with the slope of those mountains and how they taper down. It is was the perfect scenario for those winds to come down and intensify."

At Fruit Heights, the record-setting windstorm hit a gust of 146 mph, which Bruch said was recorded at the city's weather monitoring station installed at the public works building.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the high winds to be what they were and last as long as they did."

Ellis said truckers and others with high-profile vehicles were warned that high winds would make travel treacherous, but that still did not stop a parade of truckers from being stranded along I-15 as it winds through Davis County.

Wind damaged one of the county's emergency communications towers, knocking out radio communications for police and emergency medical crews, and Ellis said both communication towers and backup power capability have since been bolstered.

Jerry Stevenson, an owner and operator of Layton's J & J Nursery — Utah's largest producing nursery — estimated the storm's toll ultimately claimed 70,000 trees in Davis County, counting those damaged so severely they would never thrive and instead slowly die.

Nathan Rich, executive director of the Wasatch Integrated Waste Management District, said the Layton facility took in at no charge 12,000 tons of green waste in December in the aftermath of the storm, material used to produce mulch and compost. Another 3,400 tons of mix waste was also accepted.

Most of the storm's casualties were spruce trees — particularly the blue spruce, which is Utah's state tree. While revered and popular in landscapes throughout the state, the tree unfortunately possesses a shallow root system and often fails to thrive in an urban environment.

At the Davis Park Golf Course in Fruit Heights, some 500 trees were lost in the initial wrath of the windstorm, and still more were removed earlier this month after an assessment by Utah State University Extension Services deemed them too damaged to survive.

Along what city crews call Evergreen Row in Kaysville, only three of the original dozens of pines planted 50 years ago still remain — the rest of them fell victim to the storm.

"We lost pretty much the majority of our evergreens throughout the city," said Shaun Sackett, Kaysville's city arborist. It is a blow, he adds, since Kaysville is a designated Tree City USA town that prided itself on the row of trees put in where once the Bamberger Railway line used to be.

The city also lost its main Christmas tree in front of city hall that is the object of the annual tree-lighting ceremony each year during the holiday season.

This week, on Monday, the ceremony and electric light parade went on as planned, said City Manager John Thacker.

"We're making do this year without a Christmas tree," he said, admitting it was bit strange, but the city's display still features plenty of lights. "And we have our star on the mountain, which is our centerpiece."

Sackett said plans are already on the board for an Arbor Day tree planting ceremony next spring for what was once Evergreen Row.

"We're going to do a different kind of design," he said. "We are not going to replant spruces. We are going to incorporate what is there with a new look and the evergreen name will probably go away. They were the wrong trees in the wrong spot."

Cities like Bountiful have tried to do what they can to eliminate the public safety hazards posed by towering trees, but Bruch said one of the foremost lessons learned from last year's windstorm is the importance of heeding the warnings issued in the days and hours ahead.

"If we say it is not safe to go out, it is probably not a good idea to go out," he said. "We'd much rather take it too far than not far enough — any day. We want people prepared for when it does come."

Sackett conceded it was ironic for him when he heard that wind is forecast for Sunday.

"It is supposed to be a blustery, windy day," he said. "I said to my director, 'Oh you got to be kidding.'"

Weather forecasters, however, say the winds are anticipated to be the typical gusts that usher in a storm, and just a mere whiff of what blew through towns last year.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16