Getting ready to deploy? Feeling ready to get gritty and grungy? Sleeping in a hammock off the boom (yeah!), no showers and cold cans of soup with hot Gatorades? Hurricanes and storms are coming, and maybe you’re starting to feel that pull. Yup, it’s that time of year again!
After my 25 years of responding for disaster-relief service, this article shares some quick tips you may find helpful before you deploy.
Finding the work
The first place to start is finding power outages. Sites like poweroutage.us will give you a clear and accurate picture of where trees have knocked out power.
News broadcasts may show a treasure trove of downed trees, but they often create swarms of competitors, making news broadcasts a bit hit-and-miss.
Check Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media. Doing some keyword searches can result in very recent damage reports, and are one of my favorite search methods.
Competition saturation: Different storms cause different damage concentrations. Tornadoes and ice storms cause much more concentrated damage than hurricanes. Traveling far for tornadoes and ice storms is riskier, because all the competitors may wind up in one neighborhood with not enough work to support all the companies. This is rarely the case with a large hurricane, due to its geographic size.
Marketing: Making the phone ring
EDDM postcards: EDDM stands for Every Door Direct Mail. This bulk-mail service is inexpensive but kind of tricky to know when to use. You may not be able to get your postcards out fast enough due to the storm causing slow mail delivery, and they’re not first-class postage. That said, for the fastest response, have your artwork with your mailing service on the ready to be sent at a moment’s notice. Generally, bigger storms make this method worthwhile.
Signs can work wonders or be your downfall. We once put up a 3- by 12-foot sign that read, “Tree on your house? We have cranes!” in the median of Causeway Boulevard in Mandeville, Louisianna, after two different storms, and the results were night-and-day different. After all the damage caused by Katrina, that one sign booked our two cranes for two solid weeks. However, after the mild damage from Gustav, we put up the same sign in the same place and it was like kicking a beehive! It was torn down within a few hours, accompanied by multiple calls from angry residents.
Knocking on doors is an age-old method that still works. A qualified salesperson is necessary, and it is likely the simplest way to get jobs.
Pairing up with local tree services is a golden opportunity, especially if you have a crane. You have to time your offer, though; if you call them too early, they won’t be interested. Too late, and they’ll be too busy to answer the phone. So plan ahead.
Google AdWords and Facebook ads are a great way to test the market. You can do this to test the response from areas with the most damage. Create your campaigns and send them to several different cities. It will cost you a few thousand dollars, but it’s well worth it, as it gives instant call-volume feedback.
Facebook disaster-recovery groups are a huge resource for locating needed services after a disaster. If you have a crane, your name can spread like wildfire. A derecho-recovery group landed us 50 jobs for free during one storm.
A crane is your number-one production tool for producing multiple jobs per day, rather than multiple days per job.
Your skid steer is the second-most important piece of equipment, because it moves material quickly. Bring one with tracks so you don’t have to deal with stuck or popped tires, which happens often due to nails from storm debris and waterlogged soil.
Dangle grapples, such as one from Ryan’s, will allow for long pieces of material to be squeezed between houses, meaning fewer trips and faster job turnaround.
Chipper and chipper trucks: Most times, chipping material is a waste. When a huge number of trees come down, local municipalities, the state or even the federal government may start debris clean-up efforts with knuckle-booms from the curb. Nine times out of 10, we don’t bring a chipper. However, this can become a problem if you’re working in an expensive area or a gated community where you’re expected to take everything away with you.
An extra trailer is wise if you have one. If you have a tire blow out or a bearing go bad, you could lose thousands per day for a $15 part. You need your skid steer with you at all times, so bring an extra trailer and lots of spare tires.
Bring all tools. Floor jacks, shovels, air compressors, saws, files, bars, chains, oil, gas tanks and more. You’re going into the Dark Ages, so load up as many tools as you can. Bring extras as well, especially for your saws and other breakables. You can always bring stuff back home, but most stores will be sold out in a disaster zone, so it’s way harder to find pro-grade gear.
Extra fuel is a must-have. We bring three 100-gallon tanks and one 500-gallon tank with us per crew. This keeps us from having to make as many fuel runs outside the disaster zone.
Locks: Unfortunately, thieves will be on the prowl. Keep your gear locked up and out of sight. Often, we will load up our saws and bring them into our hotel rooms. Lugging them in daily is a pain, but after the cost of deployment, it’s a small price to pay to be able to keep running the next day.
Buy a power generator or two. Most big storms will knock out the power grid and phones in one hit. No devices means no communication, no documentation of jobs and no images for the insurance companies. Everyone hates dealing with generators, but it’s really nice to have your phone charging at the end of the day. Generators get ripped off during storms, so chain them down. Also, remember to winterize your generator, and start it before you deploy to make sure it will start when you get there.
Multiple phones from multiple carriers: If you’ve never experienced a storm deployment, you will never know how important this is. Certain cell-carrier towers and/or power to them will be down, grinding your production to a halt if you aren’t prepared. How are you going to call your crew and tell them where the next job is or receive customers’ calls without a working phone? Use prepaid phones with multiple carriers. Sometimes you’ll be in an area where there’s only one available service. These prepaid phones will provide communication, and you can shut them down when you are not deployed on disaster relief.
Starlink satellite internet service was brought to the market only a few years ago. This should be on your list to purchase, as it will bring you communication with HQ wherever you go.
Lodging: Book hotels extra early and in several locations. You can cancel the ones you won’t be using with maybe only the loss of one night. Also, by booking early, when the power goes out, the hotels will likely have a printout on paper with your name on it. Keep in mind, things get very hectic during a storm. If you don’t show up on time, your room will likely get sold by the hotel front desk to storm refugees. Also, never trust reservations made by third-party websites or central reservations overseas. They are completely out of touch with the reality of the power outages in disaster-stricken areas. During big storms, you will show up with your crew and there will be no rooms, even if you have a confirmation number, because as the hotel front desk sells the rooms locally with no power, they cannot update the available room database with central reservations or third-party websites.
Airbnbs and RVs: Airbnbs will give you a full house often for the price of one hotel room. Recreational vehicles (RVs) are awesome, because you can park right next to the neighborhood you’re working in. And you’re 100% in control, because you own it.
Inflatable mattresses: Pack a couple. You may be forced into a small hotel room without beds for everyone.
Food will be a hassle if you don’t plan ahead. I personally prefer to buy hundreds of cans of soup, energy bars, bottled water and tons of Gatorade. Don’t hesitate to overbuy; either keep the receipt and return what you don’t consume or bring it home. Prepackaged food will keep you from starving or spending work time trying to find an open grocery store.
Bring as many changes of clothes as you can handle. Chances are, you won’t have a washing machine. No one wants to sleep in a small hotel room with a bunch of sweaty tree guys with dirty clothes.
Business licenses/permits: Depending on the severity of the damage, most jurisdictions will not slow down disaster-recovery companies by forcing them to get local business licenses, but some do. Be aware that sometimes you’ll need to pause what you’re doing to go to city hall and grab a permit. Also, keep your workers’ comp and general liability insurances up to date, because they may ask for those.
Angry residents and PR concerns: You are there to help, but you’ll always have a target on your back. You’ve left your family and risked your money, but you will be vilified by the haters. A simple timeline I’ve observed is that days one through five, you’re the hero. The disaster just struck, you’ve got the crane, people are so happy to see you and the heavy jobs are getting done. Days five through 10, lots of companies have started coming into the area passing out flyers for the smaller jobs. At this point, there is less urgency and you are less appreciated, as there are tons of companies to choose from rather than none. At this stage, some may begin to regard you with suspicion as someone who takes advantage of others. Finally, beyond 10 days typically, most storm disasters become an area where you really need to tread lightly and sensitively. Keep in mind that the community you’re serving is made up of victims, literally, of Mother Nature. And as such, some may see companies there to help through the lens of victimization. Yes, we make money to support our families, but we are there to support and serve them, too. Keep your heart soft and empathize with people. They just went through a traumatic experience, and you are there to help.
So there you go, my best tips and tricks for gearing up before a storm. I hope this article helps you, at least giving you a few ideas. If your tree service finds itself in the eye of a disaster-struck area, feel free to reach out to fellow tree care companies. It works both ways.
Mark Russell, an ISA Certified Arborist and a Tree Risk Assessment Qualified (TRAQ) arborist, owns and operates 770-Arborist Emergency Tree & Crane, a six-year TCIA member company based in Atlanta, Georgia. He also is a licensed public insurance adjuster. You can read his blog at 770arborist.com/atlanta-arborist-blog/.