Image: A woman looks at downed trees in New York's Central Park
Shannon Stapleton  /  Reuters
These fallen trees in New York's Central Park were among the hundreds destroyed by high winds Tuesday night.
updated 8/19/2009 5:30:09 PM ET 2009-08-19T21:30:09

A severe thunderstorm packing wind gusts as high as 80 mph barreled through Central Park on Tuesday night, knocking down hundreds of century-old trees and destroying several parked cars.

"Central Park has been devastated," Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the New York Times. "It created more damage then I've seen in thirty years of working in the parks."

"I've never seen a wind of that velocity in New York City," Benepe added. "It looks like pictures that I've seen of war zones where artillery shells have shredded trees."

The storm swept through the area, snapping some of the park's famous American elm trees in half while uprooting others. One tree lay across the tennis courts at West 96th Street, and a few lampposts stood at a slant after trees crashed into them.

Several parked cars were also destroyed when branches hurtled through the air and landed on them.

Steve Sherman, a 50-year-old photographer, cycled through Central Park on Wednesday morning and counted dozens of fallen trees around him. He compared the devastation to the aftermath of a tornado.

"Central Park is our oasis. It's our only saving grace living in an urban center like New York," Sherman said. "To see Mother Nature up front and realize her power, it's phenomenal. You just don't expect it in an urban setting."

Artist's lament
Dorothy London has spent years sketching the area's towering American elm trees. On Tuesday night, the artist stood by her apartment window worrying about how the trees were faring in the fierce storm.

"I heard the screaming of the wind. I heard crashing," London said. "I was worried if all those beautiful trees were all dying."

On Wednesday morning, she toured the park, looking for her favorite American elm. She found the elm split in two.

"It's dead," she said, bursting into tears.

Parks employees were cleaning up streets and travel lanes Wednesday and identifying any hazardous areas of trees with hanging limbs that could still come down. The Central Park Conservancy also brought in emergency contractors.

'Changed forever'
Benepe urged the public to stay away from any trees in the park marked hazardous. He said some of the heavier-hit sections of Central Park might have to be cordoned off.

"The landscape has changed forever," he said.

The American elm can grow up to 125 feet tall, with a spread spanning 65 feet at the top. Benepe said he wasn't sure if new saplings would ever be able to reach the size and maturity of the trees that were lost.

"My grandchildren might be able to enjoy those trees in time," Sherman said. "But they won't be able to see the tree I just looked at yesterday. We've lost friends here."

The storm swept in after two sweltering days of temperatures above 90 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, there is a chance of another shower and thunderstorm Wednesday evening.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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