When a hurricane, ice storm, wildfire, tornado or other extreme weather event hits a region, commercial tree care companies play a major role in the emergency response. But within the industry, some tree care pros will do one storm cleanup and never come back a second time.
“There’s plenty of that,” says Brad Clayman, an arborist whose own experience with storm cleanup goes back to 2011. “There’s nothing easy about it. Some people say it’s just in your blood. It’s something different. There’s a thrill to it, you know, but it’s not easy.”
According to those who do the work, coming to the rescue at the sites of natural disasters provides an adrenalin rush, a sense of purpose, long hours and some pretty good coin. It’s also tricky, hazardous work in areas where the conditions may create their own dangers.
“You could be sleeping in your truck or there’s no power. It’s hard conditions for the first two weeks, for sure,” says Clayman, who does contract work for Richmond Tree Experts – a nine-year TCIA member based in Marietta, Georgia – including both field work and handling of management and insurance documentation for storm work. “A lot of the areas we work in aren’t in the safest part of town, either.”
More than just skill, grit and stamina, cleanup work requires flexibility and the ability to deal with a lot of uncertainty, not the least of which is whether your trip will pay off in the way you expect it to.
For companies considering storm-response work, there are several considerations. Do you like working long days in uncomfortable, unpredictable and often unhealthy conditions doing a dangerous job? Do you have the staffing to continue to service your clients at home while your crews are miles away for two or more weeks at a time? Will it pay off financially?
Clayman works with HMI, a 15-year TCIA corporate member company based in Cary, North Carolina, and one of the companies that acts as a third-party conduit between insurance companies and tree care companies. These managed-repair programs connect insurers and property owners with professional tree care companies year-round. When disaster strikes, they work in concert to make sure insurance clients have someone to pull the trees off their roofs and cover the holes with tarps so that no further damage is done.
“It’s a lot more than just being a middleman,” says Doug Cowles, president and CEO of HMI, who says the tree care companies he works with are thoroughly vetted, including background checks that look at credit histories, insurance status and credentialing. “We really are a quality layer that makes the insurance adjusters comfortable writing checks for the work our companies do.”
One of the other companies that runs a managed-repair program is Timber Warriors, LLC, a nine-year TCIA corporate member based in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. Scot Watkins, who coordinated their storm response until recently, says that solid companies with affiliations such as TCIA or ISA are a must.
“That way we know with reasonably good judgment that they’re going to follow agriculturally sound practices and perform in a safe manner,” Watkins says. “There are a lot of companies out there that take shortcuts, and that’s what we want to stay away from.”
While some tree workers – including the proverbial “guy with a chain saw and pickup truck” – travel to storms in the hopes of a payday (perhaps the origin of stories about price gouging), the tree care companies in these programs usually have an idea of what they’ll be paid based on their relationships, and know how to document the work to insurance adjusters’ requirements. In this high-volume, high-effort storm cleanup, both the expense and physical costs can be high, and working with a company such as HMI or Timber Warriors can provide certainty.
A common storm-cleanup scenario described by many is this: The crew starts a job on one end of a street, and neighbors come out of their homes also seeking help. The crew then works its way down the street, going from job to job.
There is a fiscal uncertainty to that, however. Desperate homeowners may write checks that will bounce or ignore bills that come in later. There may be trouble collecting from insurance companies.
“That’s the reality of doing storm work, which is one of the reasons there are companies that don’t do that,” Cowles says. “They’ll only work with HMI, because every lead we give them has been sent to us by an insurance company. There’s a valid claim there. We know what the deductible is for the companies that apply deductibles to our work. (Homeowners) know this is a legitimate company that’s been sent to work specifically for them. So there’s more structure involved.”
Catch as catch can
While some crews travel from coast to coast, Ron Von Paulus doesn’t need to. The owner of Big Ron’s Tree Service, LLC, is based in Miami, Florida – where tropical storms blow 60 miles per hour – and much of his work is municipal. When a storm comes to him, Timber Warriors hooks him up with additional clients. He also gets to observe other responders roll in.
“It’s kind of a free-for-all, you know?” says Von Paulus, who stands 6-foot-8 (hence “Big Ron”) and got his start as a side hustle, as the guy with a pickup and chain saw. He was a bartender who would do cleanup after storms, and from there built up a solid business.
In a storm, he says, “Most of the best money is in the roadside trimming, believe it or not. A lot of these crews come in for that. Then it’s catch as catch can. There’s so much business (that) if you have a tree truck with a phone number on the side, people will call you.
“I know a guy who has two giant commercial stump grinders,” Von Paulus says. “He just gets (lodging) on a main street wherever he travels, all over the country. And he puts the stump grinders out front so they can be seen from the street, with his big phone number on the side. And the phone just rings.”
While Von Paulus stays local, Clayman will travel coast to coast doing storm cleanup, and will usually bring two crews, two skid steers and two cranes. “Once you put the crane in the air, people start walking up,” he says.
Cowles says some tree care responders likely freelance for part of their day, but Brad Phillips, owner of ArborTrue Tree Service, a four-year TCIA member company based in Kingwood, Texas, that services the Houston area, does not. His crews travel to California for wildfires and Florida for hurricanes, but he prefers to stick to the leads provided by HMI because of the certainty that he’ll be paid for his work.
“Hurricane season is not our opportunity to get rich; it’s simply our ‘Black Friday,’” says Phillips, who frequently takes five crews with him to work storms.
With that type of investment, he prefers to work jobs knowing he’ll be compensated, and is comfortable with the HMI financial arrangement. While the stories about crews that head to storm areas and make a fortune are legion, less publicized are the tales of companies that find it less lucrative and might even lose money.
Work slows dramatically during the winter in his company’s primary service area of Houston, so the ability to find a high density of work in an area is well worth the effort involved, but Phillips wants to get paid for that work.
He admits there are some operators who price gouge in emergency situations, but Phillips says that’s not his mission. His company’s purpose is to make money and help communities in trouble.
“I wish I had the ability to calculate the amount of money we have saved insurance companies,” Phillips says. “Because when we get out there and we pull that tree off and we put that tarp on that roof, that means that insurance company is not buying a hundred-thousand-dollars’ worth of travertine or hardwood floors, televisions, sheet rock and cabinetry. We got there first. We saved them a ton of money.”
Land of uncertainty
The uncertainty can start before the storm even hits land. Watkins remembers in 2019, stationing crews in Florida for Florida Power & Light in advance of Hurricane Dorian, only to have it veer up the coast and hit land in Georgia and the Carolinas instead.
“There are many things you have to be adaptable about and prepared for,” he says, noting that storms sometimes lose power as they arrive on shore, and may cut inland or head back out to sea.
In a disaster area, it can be difficult for crews to find water, food, lodging or showers. Phillips once rented a homeless shelter because he couldn’t find any other lodging for his team, and all of them wound up with scabies.
Cell service may not work, costing crews not just communication but also GPS and weather updates.
Criminals will often travel to storm sites, and tree crews may be their victims. Thieves often take advantage of a bad situation by looting or robbing whatever they can. That can include tree care equipment.
During his last storm cleanup, Phillips was robbed.
“I try to be very careful,” he says. “The last one I responded to, I locked my generator cable lock to the back of my truck. I ran the generator from the back of my truck and plugged the camper into the generator, but accidentally left my gas cans in the back of the truck, unlocked. So all the gas cans were gone. I woke up in the morning, my camper was unplugged and the lights were dim. My generator was sitting on the ground and my tailgate was open. Somebody had attempted to steal the generator, as well, but it was locked, so they left it.”
Gasoline also may be unavailable. “On that same trip, I found a gas station about two miles away from our base camp,” Phillips says. “I filled up my 90-gallon diesel tank in the back of my truck. I got back and told everybody, ‘Hey, two miles that way there’s a station.’ They went there. It was all shut down with police tape because somebody had just been killed over gasoline.”
By and large, Phillips says, tree crews will work cooperatively. Von Paulus describes the tree care crews he’s met at cleanups as “good, hard-working dudes just trying to make a living.”
“It’s the locals and the criminals who come in from all over the country to try to steal generators that are sitting outside the garage, because you’re not supposed to run one inside the house,” Phillips says. “They just go around rounding up generators and gas cans – and they know that all of us are coming down with half a million, a million, two million dollars’ worth of equipment. And they are happy to take advantage of our carelessness or our exhaustion.”
That exhaustion is a key factor. Companies make their money in volume and may work 10-, 12- or 14-hour days. Adrenaline may keep them going, but trees are unpredictable, and there is a daily workload of jobs that can be difficult and hazardous.
Von Paulus cites a statistic from a safety class that 90% of hurricane-related fatalities come not during the storm, but afterward. “After hurricanes, it’s humid, it’s hot,” Von Paulus says. “People have heart attacks, people slip. There was a fireman on his day off, one of a bunch of guys with chain saws walking around in Homestead helping all the neighbors out. A pinched branch snapped up, hit the guy in the chin, broke his neck. He’s a quadriplegic now.”
Phillips says the talent level among crews, his own and others, is very high, and it needs to be.
“We have a lot of experience, but at the end of the day it’s a remarkably dangerous job,” Phillips says. “Tree work is dangerous enough as it is. Now add criminals attracted to a disaster zone with no electricity, people getting shot over gasoline, and now you’ve really got a dangerous situation. It takes a certain type of person to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll go do that.’”
Preparation is key
So, if you’re going to respond to storms, what’s in your “go bag?”
Watkins recommends a radio, water, purification tablets and pump, freeze-dried food, toothpaste and toothbrush, an independent GPS receiver and a small bag for hand tools and other mechanical needs in case of a breakdown or flat tire.
Von Paulus recommends having all your equipment filters clean and bringing extra chains and anything else in case something breaks down. Others bring campers or fill their cabs with necessities.
For those contemplating storm-response work for their company, consider undertaking both a business and a personal inventory or assessment. The business inventory might include the question of what happens to your business at home when you’re traveling to respond to a storm. Also, it might consider whether you can wait four months, six months or even longer for insurance companies to pay and cover the expenses of a trip to the site. Clayman says that for his two storm-response crews, the daily expenses are approximately $13,000.
The personal inventory might start with the question of what type of person you are. “It takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit,” says Cowles. “It’s not just the owner of the company. It’s also the crews. You have to have crew members who are willing to go into harm’s way and be away from home for an extended period of time. Most of them are in it for the money you can generate in a big storm, but a lot of them actually like helping people out as well.”
There is a profit motive and a lot of wear and tear, but there’s also an excitement to it, Cowles says. “I think there are certain people who just have that DNA, who are adrenaline junkies, and they like the excitement of it.”