After the Storm Take it One Tree at a Time


Whenever a storm hits and massive tree damage occurs, an arborist can easily be overwhelmed. The local and national media often blanket TV and newspapers with images of trees down all over the area. Scenes of power lines on the ground with limbs covering them, tree pieces laying on cars and homes, or roads that are impassible from all the debris can make any arborist want to immediately spring into action. We all know that we can help with the cleanup effort, but depending on the size of your crews, you can only be in so many places at once.

On Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011, an early-season snowstorm struck much of the northeastern U.S. The forecasters had predicted the storm for several days and reminded everyone that trees could be easily damaged since many still had leaves on them. The storm was as predicted: a nor’easter with high winds leaving behind up to 20 inches of snow in areas of southern Maine and 160,000 customers without power statewide. In the city of Portland, we were treated to a mere 5.2 inches, but that was enough to cause considerable damage.

I received a phone call around 7 a.m. Sunday from a client who owned a multifamily house on outer Congress Street in Portland. A large leader from a silver maple (Acer saccharinum), approximately 22 inches in diameter at the base, separated from the rest of the tree, falling across his driveway. When the tree fell, it brought with it the house’s power, phone and cable lines, before coming to rest with the tips of top branches on his porch. Parts of the scaffolding branches lay across the sidewalk, and some municipal employees had already cut a few off to clear the way for traffic. Outer Congress Street is a busy four-lane arterial that links Portland to South Portland, with many shopping areas, restaurants, shops and homes lining it. I grabbed my gear and hopped in my truck.

A snowstorm severely damaged a silver maple in Portland, Maine. Photo: J.D. Hernandez Forest Products

Since this is a high-traffic area, both vehicular and pedestrian, I knew I needed to create a safe work zone. I grabbed a roll of yellow caution tape and made sure to wear high-visibility gear. I called the power company to make sure the lines were de-energized so I would be safe to work. My client had called a private licensed electrician to begin repairing his service line since it had been torn from the building. The electrician had all of the de-energized lines safely removed from my work zone, and the residential distribution lines were located across the street.

My first order of business was to secure my work zone. I strung the yellow caution tape the entire length of the zone, giving myself enough room to park my truck safely off the street. Since the driveway was blocked, I had to park my truck off the sidewalk, which acted as a barrier for the work zone. I put on my safety gear: hard hat with hearing protection and face shield, safety glasses and gloves. I was already wearing a high-visibility vest. I checked over the site once more to make sure there weren’t any safety hazards such as utility lines, holes, tripping hazards or anything that would get in my way.

I started to clear away the scaffolding branches that were sticking out everywhere. I stacked them beyond the driveway near the base of the tree, and the client arrived to check on my progress. I explained to him that I would cut up all of the brush, cut the leader to stove-length firewood size, and stack all the material off of the driveway. Since there were multiple clients calling for service at the time, my plan was to clear all of the obstructions and leave the material on each site over the next few days. Once all of the obstructions were clear, I would then bring back a chipper to deal with the brush and remove the round wood at the same time. This was done as a time-saving measure, allowing me to service as many clients as possible in a short period of time, and then devoting a full day to disposing all the residual debris from multiple sites at once. I wanted to deal with the important things first, e.g. clearing the obstructions, and then deal with aesthetic cleanup when time wasn’t a factor. My client agreed this would be the best option for him. Also, the weather would warm up later in the week, melting the 5 inches of heavy, wet snow and making it easier to rake up the leaves and twigs.

After removing all the branches from the leader, I stacked them neatly for later chipping, and well out of the way of the driveway and parking area. Then I cut the leader to 16-inch lengths for firewood. I stacked the pieces next to the brush pile, where I could easily come in and remove all the debris. I swept the porch so nobody would slip on the leaves and brushed the driveway off as well. I made piles as best I could of the leaves and twigs, but the snow made it difficult.

Photo: J.D. Hernandez Forest Products

My client was satisfied with my prompt response, and his electrician remarked that it was easier to repair the service lines without all the debris in the way. The tenants were glad they could once again use the driveway. I gave my client a time frame of one to two days before I would be back to remove the remainder of the debris.

The rest of Sunday and most of Monday were spent cleaning up other storm debris. Calls varied from trees that were blocking camp roads to limbs that had fallen in driveways. The majority of the damage seemed to be silver maples that had lingering leaves and weaker wood. Oaks in other areas of the state and region were also hard hit.

I returned to the first job site Tuesday morning and removed the round wood and chipped the branches. Cleanup was a snap since everything was ready to be removed. I raked the lawn, gathering up all the leaves and sawdust that remained from the leader. My client’s power had been restored by that point, although many in the state went additional days without electricity. He was fortunate, with limited damage to his house. If the leader’s fall had been a few degrees to the north, it would have landed directly on his house.

The tree that failed was actually on his neighbor’s property. There were other branches with weak angles of attachment and many crossing branches. Since a part of the tree had already failed, my client was apprehensive about it. I explained that it was his neighbor’s tree and, therefore, his neighbor’s responsibility. I wrote a hazard tree assessment outlining the causes for failure, as well as management options for the tree. I advised my client to retain a copy for his records and forward the assessment along to his neighbor.

Storms always keep arborists busy. Snow, heavy rain, ice and high winds damage trees, and we as professionals need to be ready to clean up from the damage. Always have a plan in mind and try not to lose focus. The phone may ring off the hook immediately following a storm; make sure you return each and every call as soon as possible. Give every client or potential client a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to come out and survey the job and the time it will take to complete the job. Realize that for most of the people calling you, this is a major event in their daily routine, so afford them compassion and concern. That is what sets us apart as professionals. After a storm strikes, there are often many unscrupulous “contractors” who take advantage of the situation. They provide shoddy work, gouging prices, and they are sometimes incapable of completing the project. By applying our professional standards to the tasks at hand after a storm, we do professional arboriculture a big service and present the public with the correct image of what being an arborist is all about. Remember that when the general public sees you in the field doing great work with great results your company image shines.

As always, work safely, professionally and intelligently. For many people, when a disaster strikes a tree around their house, that may be the only time they call a tree service. Take the time to educate your clients about the need for tree care and how damage may be averted in the future. We never hope for a disaster, but they inevitably arise, be ready to respond.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 2012 and has been updated.

Jack Hernandez is a Licensed Maine First Class Landscape and Utility Arborist, Certified Logging Professional and the owner of J.D. Hernandez Forest Products. He is interested in all facets of tree work and eHampton Roadsoys continuing his education in the field and educating others.

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