Fluke storm wreaks havoc

Downed trees lie among headstones at the Evanston City Cemetery on Wednesday morning after Tuesday’s snow and wind storm damaged homes and other property across Evanston. Officials said the storm either uprooted or destroyed 13 trees in the cemetery Tuesday morning. See more photos from around town on pages A8-9. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — It may not have been the storm of the century, but the wintry weather that hit southwest Wyoming on Tuesday, Sept. 8, certainly provided area residents with conditions that will likely be talked about for years to come. Following a Labor Day weekend of sunshine and high temperatures in the 80s, Tuesday’s high temperatures were in the 30s with sustained wind speeds about 40 miles per hour for several hours and gusts reportedly nearing 60 mph.

The wind — which in parts of northern Utah reportedly reached hurricane strength at more than 100 mph — left significant damage in its wake.

According to City of Evanston Public Works Director Gordon Robinson, the first calls started coming in at about 6 a.m. as residents woke to downed, or nearly downed, trees throughout the city. A total of 13 trees were uprooted at the Evanston City Cemetery, with dozens more in other areas. Robinson said he’s not sure of the exact count of downed trees or the financial costs of the damage, but city crews responded to about 30 situations and trees were reportedly uprooted in Depot Square, on school district property and on private property. A Facebook post from Phillips RV Park reported 12 mature trees were lost at that location. There was also significant damage to vehicles, camp trailers, garages, homes and buildings from both trees and wind. Herald offices, along with other businesses located in the same building, were evacuated due to damage.

With the downed trees came downed power lines, resulting in power outages throughout Evanston and southwest Wyoming for several hours. Dave Eskelsen with Rocky Mountain Power said approximately 1,500 customers throughout southwest Wyoming were without power at one point on Tuesday as crews worked nonstop to restore service not only to those customers but the estimated 180,000 customers without power throughout Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.

By Wednesday morning, Eskelsen said power had been restored to all but 139 customers in the area, with 32 still without power by Wednesday evening as repair crews continued to work around the clock. Eskelsen said the outages in the Evanston area were caused by damage to both substations as well as the lines connecting those substations, which resulted in a time-consuming repair process to restore power.

Uinta County Emergency Management Director Kim West said, due to the power outage and cold temperatures, county staff had prepared an emergency shelter trailer with cots and blankets; however, power was restored, and the trailer wasn’t needed.

In addition to handling downed trees, City of Evanston crews also responded to downed street lights, to barricade roads where power lines were down and to help with traffic control as fire and emergency crews responded to other incidents, as well as sanding the overpass when accidents began to be a problem due to ice build-up. Uinta County Fire and Ambulance reported on Facebook that Bridger Valley crews were responding to a multi-vehicle pileup on westbound I-80, which was ultimately closed in both directions due to the storm.

Two city crews with trucks, tractors and chainsaws worked to remove trees that fell into roadways or on city property, but Robinson said city employees didn’t remove felled trees on private property that weren’t otherwise causing traffic hazards. He said city equipment is large and heavy, which can potentially cause further damage to already damaged private property. Additionally, the City isn’t insured to cover damages that may occur if partially-downed trees were to further damage homes or structures, while professional tree removal companies are insured for such. Finally, Robinson said as a public entity it is not appropriate for the City to compete with private businesses that specialize in tree removal or for the City to spend public money on tree removal on private property.

Several homes on Main Street were reportedly evacuated due to a large pine tree that was falling toward them, with video circulated on Facebook documenting the efforts to stabilize the tree with a loader, a semi and chains. Robinson said a private company would be working to remove that tree once the wind subsided and it was safe to do so. West said the American Red Cross worked with at least one family whose home suffered damage to pay for temporary lodging at a local hotel, while other families were reportedly staying with friends or family after their homes were evacuated.

Although there was significant property damage, West said it was not extensive enough to qualify for a federal disaster declaration or any type of Federal Emergency Management Agency financial assistance.

Given the amount of damage to homes, vehicles and other structures due to both wind and falling trees, it’s a safe bet there will be insurance claims related to the storm. Local agent Jeff Piper with Farmer’s Insurance said, in general, claims related to both wind and tree damage would be covered by individual policies, including homeowner’s and auto insurance, or any insurance for camp trailers, etc. However, it’s important for individuals to check their individual policies to find out what is covered, and there are limitations to that coverage.

For example, a tree falling on a vehicle would be covered by auto insurance if the policy included comprehensive coverage but not if liability-only coverage was carried on the vehicle. Individual coverage would also apply to damage caused to a home, vehicle or other property from a tree that, for example, fell from a neighbor’s yard. Unless there is evidence the neighbor was in some way negligent — which isn’t likely the case with an incident like this week’s storm — then a neighbor’s insurance wouldn’t be responsible for damage caused to other people’s property.

In addition, homeowner’s insurance would only pay for claims due to damage that actually occurred. If a tree fell and damaged a home, insurance would likely pay for both damage to the home and for removal of the tree. However, if a tree is left leaning dangerously but no damage to the home has yet occurred, insurance wouldn’t pay for the tree to be removed. This can leave homeowners in a precarious position, as, according to Piper, policy owners are required to mitigate damages, meaning that if the tree were leaning dangerously and the homeowner didn’t remove it and it later fell, insurance could refuse to pay for damage because mitigation steps weren’t taken.

Since city crews are unable to take down trees on private property and private insurance won’t pay for removal of trees in imminent danger of falling, property owners may be faced with bearing the expense of tree removal out of pocket. According to West, tree removal could cost thousands of dollars. West said the hope is that a nonprofit organization of some type may be willing to work with some type of fundraising and distributing money to property owners to help offset some of those expenses.

Robinson said responding to and removing downed trees all day on Tuesday — work that continued on Wednesday and Thursday and may extend beyond that — may have been the most visible, but city staff were also dealing with difficulties related to power outages as well. With power and phone lines out at the public works office, administrative assistant Carolyn Maddox ended up using her personal cellphone to help dispatch crews. Robinson said both the water and wastewater treatment plants and sewer pumping stations were operating on backup generators.

“We had other challenges with the power outage that we had to handle while the storm was raging and the tree problems were occurring. Everyone in town still had water and sewer service despite the challenges of dealing with a power outage. This is often taken for granted. All of our people quietly and expertly did their good work to keep the town in water and sewer services while the storm raged.”

Robinson, an Evanston native, said he doesn’t remember ever seeing a situation similar to Tuesday’s storm. “I have seen similar events, but nothing this drastic,” he said. “We have had one or two trees come down from microburst winds and we have had heavy spring snowstorms bring some branches down, but nothing of this magnitude.”

To help with cleanup from the storm, Robinson said the yard waste collection site on Union Road will remain open through the weekend. The gate will be open for disposal of tree debris as a free service to the public. West urged property owners to take photos of all damage prior to cleanup because the photos may be needed to file insurance claims.

Robinson said the work done by city employees this week has been invaluable. “We take pride in working hard to serve the public,” he said. “We wish we could go onto private property to help the citizens, but…there are many reasons we cannot. We have fantastic employees at public works who do a great job. They are genuinely concerned about serving the public and helping where we can.”

“Everything went very well during the challenges yesterday because of the great employees who do great work,” Robinson said. “I just have to let them do what they do because they do it very well. It is a little known fact that we are first responders as well. The work we do is often behind the scenes but nonetheless important. …We will continue to do cleanup from this storm for as long as we need to.”

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