Welcoming guests to a Baltimore hotel this holiday season will be a Sandy refugee — a tall, graceful Christmas tree that escaped the massive storm's high winds and unexpected snow.
The 22-foot-high Douglas fir arrived at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Hotel by the Inner Harbor, where several people spent hours decorating it on Friday. The tree escaped damage last month when the fierce storm ravaged a family tree farm in Garrett County. Thousands of other trees were lost there, according to the longtime owners.
Sandy plopped more than two feet of soggy snow on Garrett County, and Pinetum Christmas Trees was one of the hardest hit. The farm caters to the niche market for sheared trees between 16 and 40 feet tall — trees that are trucked to corporate lobbies, malls and other customers with large spaces to fill for the holidays.
Regular-size trees weathered Sandy much better, and growers report a solid supply and good variety of firs, pines and spruces. Other Christmas tree growers from Western Maryland across the state reported minor — if any — damage to their seasonal evergreen crop from Hurricane Sandy, the storm classified as a post-tropical cyclone by the time it hit the East Coast.
But at Pinetum, trees were snapped in half, toppled, crushed and mangled. Some had sections of limbs ripped out. Owners Marshall and Cindy Stacy said they had to cancel 70 percent of this year's tree orders, returning about $35,000 to customers at what should be their flush time of year.
"If you'd paid $4,000 for a tree, and you got half a tree and half a truckload of limbs with a note saying, 'Some assembly required,' you wouldn't think it was a joke," Marshall Stacy said.
The couple, whose tree farm is on their 370-acre property in the Appalachian Mountains, is devastated. They bought the farm in 1970 and have lived there since 1976. "This is our heart and soul," Cindy Stacy said.
She described the scene when they first surveyed the damage: "We came around the corner of one of our farms, and it was 'Oh, my God, that's the Douglas fir field,' and it was just hammered."
Garrett County often sees winter storms that dump several feet of snow on the mountains, to the joy of skiers. But Sandy was an oddity, meteorologists said. It wasn't just the 18 to 30 inches of snow in autumn; it was also was the gale-force winds that sent thick, water-laden air whipping through the mountains.
"The snow was uncharacteristically heavy and wet," said National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Rehak.
The combination not only caused roofs to collapse but trees of all kinds to snap; many couldn't carry the extra weight of snow that clung to fading foliage that normally drops later in the fall, he said.
Marshall Stacy said the overall loss to Pinetum may top $200,000. That's because the trees take a generation to reach such heights — growing roughly a foot a year — and require care all year long. In addition, the couple must pay cleanup costs to remove and dispose of the ruined trees.
Clients that include companies that supply trees to malls and office parks are among the Pinetum customers who had to look elsewhere. Some growers in Maryland produce a few large trees, but not the in the volume and variety that Pinetum does.
Harbor Court was the only Baltimore-area business to order a tree from Pinetum this year, the owners said. And hotel officials said they consider themselves fortunate to be among the few Pinetum customers whose order wasn't canceled.
Sam Ackerman, the hotel's director of engineering, ran the eight-man job of winching the tree into place last week, his shouts of direction slightly muffled by the sound of a cherry picker's diesel engine.
The tree had been rolled into the hotel's courtyard from Light Street on a pair of dollies. It lay trussed up like a turkey on the ground, and the plan was to drag it upright using a rope tied to the basket of the cherry picker.
The first attempt went awry — the picker was at the wrong height to get enough leverage — but a second fared better, and the tree began gracefully swinging up and into place. As the tree rose higher, it lurched perilously to one side, but the six men standing around the base steadied it and slotted it into position.
"Hold it right there," Ackerman ordered.
Dale Klietz, the owner of J. J. Cummings Floral, turned up to watch the finishing touches. He had the job of decorating the tree Friday with 600 lights and hundreds of ornaments, which he described as a full day's work for four people.
Wilma Muir, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, assures that the supply of Christmas trees in the Baltimore area, especially those of average size, remains abundant despite the weather brought by Sandy.