Once the dust (or snow or mud or rain) settles following a storm, who are the first first responders? Ask anyone who’s worked a storm or other natural disaster, and they will tell you that the true first responders are tree care crews. Without them police, fire and other emergency workers, oil, gas and electrical utility crews and even the local, state and federal aid workers can’t get down the road until the mishmash of broken trees is cleared sufficiently for them to get through.
Only then does the cleanup truly start.
Anyone who’s been there in a first first responder mission will tell you it’s dangerous, unpredictable work. They’ll also tell you that succeeding at the task and doing it safely requires planning, equipment, training, attention to detail, esprit de corps and dogged determination. Storm chasing from the standpoint of the tree business can be rewarding, helping people and the bottom line, but it’s not for everyone, despite the lure of significant profitability.
In Part 1 of our discussion on natural disaster work (“Danger: Beware Climbing During Storm Work,” TCI, August 2019), we explored the challenges and wisdom of getting climbers in the air. This time the subject is broader. Drawing again on our cadre of experienced tree care disaster professionals, we take on the larger view. It matters not if you opt for chasing storms and business halfway across the country or if you are one of a few in your area confronted with a herculean mess, the advice our sources share is worth heeding.
Preparation is key
“You have to prepare before you go into a storm area,” says Erwin Castellanos, Sr., a certified arborist and president of Champions Tree Preservation, a 33-year TCIA member company based in Houston, Texas. “If you do not arrive on scene prepared, instead of being of assistance, you can become part of the problem.”
From the company’s headquarters in Texas, his crews have ranged throughout the storm-prone U.S. Gulf Coast and all the way to New England. “In a post-storm situation, you never know what you’re headed into. Logistics are few once a storm has arrived,” he observes. “You have to be able to deal with and function for long periods of time in an environment where the infrastructure is at a standstill. There often are no facilities. No water. No electric power.”
It’s common, Castellanos reports, to “have to make plans to deal with the National Guard in circumstances that I call close to the devastation caused by a war or something like that. You have to be prepared to improvise, to have your own facilities for your crews, food, power sources.”
Acknowledging that great challenges such as storm cleanup require a large fleet of diverse vehicles and equipment, Castellanos warns, “You also have to be prepared with a lot of fuel.” Such supplies, he adds, “need to last a week to 10 days, knowing you may be facing situations where there is no fuel, food or water.
“The equipment we take with us includes every possible thing that will be of use, from cranes to loaders to skid steers to bucket trucks – anything and everything available and that might be used in those circumstances.”
He warns: “Do not take old equipment so as not to face breakdowns, which can slow the work to get the infrastructure going again.
“Once we get to a storm area, we try to connect with other tree care companies we have been associated with in the past, and we try to help other TCIA members who are overwhelmed with calls, because we know if calls go unanswered, reputations built up over years can go up in smoke. We see helping other TCIA members as one of our primary missions.”
To Castellanos’ way of thinking, part of the prep work is reaching out to other tree care companies before a storm strikes. Given today’s level of weather forecasting, he says, “We know where the computer formulas are likely to put a storm, the given populations and type of areas we will be working in. So we use the TCIA database to contact member companies we may need to hook up with. We also have used TCIA resources to guide us to those companies likely seeking assistance. Sometimes first contact is made while we are on the road and the storm is still ongoing. TCIA is a major resource for me and for other members needing help,” he stresses.
Dealing with debris
Once on scene, Castellanos says, “One of the first things we deal with is downed wires all over the place. Even though the power company says they are dead, that is not necessarily the case. Homeowners often hook up generators, and electricity is fed into the system that way.”
In clearing trees, he continues, “The first thing to do is make sure you have access. Then make sure the tree is safe to work on. Once the crew agrees it is safe, then proceed cautiously.”
One thing to be very cognizant of are government-hired contractors, he says. “For example, there are a lot of contractors from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) who will go up and down the streets cleaning up debris. It is not uncommon to have wires explode as they pick up tree debris. Often, these contractors have never worked under these circumstances before.”
Castellanos offers what he says is a classic example, that of contractors grappling with huge piles of tree debris and actually pulling off live wires along with the pile. In one case, he says, a transformer exploded. “Everyone is under pressure to open the roads, so if you are working in their area, work with them to minimize their risk and yours.”
Another of our round table of storm veterans is Walter Patenaude, a 15-year industry veteran and working foreman for Country Landscapes and Tree, LLC, a six-year TCIA member company based in Ashford, Connecticut.
“Storm work is a very different animal versus regular tree work,” Patenaude maintains. “There are a lot more obstacles to contend with. One of the biggest is trees on power lines and safely removing branches that have fallen across wires. Then there is the issue of broken branches in a tree you are working on, especially if you have to climb. You have to figure out how to get them out without damaging things around you or hurting yourself or others nearby. Safety is number one,” Patenaude declares, “followed by productivity.
“We prep for storm work by filling our trucks with gear we likely will need,” he states. “We do a lot of work in the dark, so we need headlamps and halogen flashlights and extra lights for the trucks. And we have to ensure that the crew has enough clothing to be dressed properly for the duration of the storm and cleanup.
“Gear-wise, we do not vary a lot. No matter what the situation is, we make sure we have all our rigging gear, blocks and pulleys and ropes to get trees off the wires,” he adds, “and a gasoline-powered pole saw.
“We may be gone for a minimum of a week,” Patenaude observes, “so we include extra ear protection and safety glasses, double check all the safety equipment and load on extra chain saw bars and other maintenance and replacement parts.” He notes that the most common field repair is the chain saw bar, because so many get rendered useless and unsafe when they get
pinched by a branch under load.
After ensuring that power is off to downed or tree-laden wires, Patenaude says the next order of business would be to determine how to safely anchor a downed high-tension wire that may be under thousands of pounds of pressure and which can spring back. “We will anchor the wire to another tree or a vehicle to prevent it from snapping up and taking out a worker,” he says.
Here’s a challenge that might not come to mind when you’re in the early stages of the cleanup mission. What do you do when you get bombarded with almost 800 calls in less than 24 hours?
Shawn Emmons, president of and climber for Emmons Tree & Landscape Service, LLC, a 13-year TCIA member company based in New Milford, Conn., just north of Danbury, recalls several storms he worked in 2010 and, in the wake of a recent and damaging macro-burst event in his area, says, “If I had not had that experience under my belt, I would not have been able to handle what we got in Milford –787 calls in just 14 hours. I did not see my family for six straight days.”
He says he learned early on how it is as important to put more people in the office to address all calls as it is to be ready for fieldwork.
“We went to a system of prioritization – municipalities to open roads, trees on houses, then trees blocking driveways and trees down in yards – and we were running night and day,” he says. “We did not do residential work at night; it’s not safe,” Emmons maintains.
With that kind of demand, “I admitted that I needed help and called in contractors near me,” Emmons says. “Two who I know worked for me by the hour. If it was a contractor I did not know, I’d get a percentage of their job.”
Many of the calls were from people with whom Emmons previously had not done business, “but I took care of them in a bad time. I did not say no. If we couldn’t do the work, we were honest about it and explained that we had a contractor from out of state who could do the job for us and would be there for the caller. It worked out great,” Emmons adds. “A lot of them turned into regular customers.”
He offers some observations about “big things” to consider.
“Safety is a big situation,” Emmons declares. “Storm work is 100 times more dangerous than a normal work day. Just getting down the road is a problem, getting the truck to where it is needed. Then, where do you get rid of the material? You have to know where dumpsites are ahead of time – and prices, so that isn’t an issue. We use our regular dump spots and, because we know a storm is coming, notify them ahead of time, asking if they are capable of taking in more than our average of three loads, up to 12. Normally, they can accommodate that.
“We also call fuel providers and make sure they can get us fuel at the end of every day so as not to waste time in the morning fueling up. They fuel us up at night, and we go out with full tanks,” he explains.
“When I know a storm is coming in a few days, we gather our power equipment and grab extra safety apparel, safety hats, rope, chain and cable and put them on the trucks in inventory so the crews don’t have to worry about it at the last minute,” he adds.
Echoing others spoken with for this article, Emmons stresses that storm cleanup is a team effort and involves cooperation and give-back. “We need to make sure roads are open for the municipalities, certainly, and also for homeowners,” Emmons notes.
“Our town notifies us right away. We even have crews on standby with the fire department so emergency responders and equipment can get to where they are needed.”
“I’ve done 29 storm events,” says Kevin Caldwell, founder and owner of Caldwell Tree Care, an accredited, 22-year TCIA member company based in Roswell, Georgia, “some in town and some with serious traveling involved.” He recalls three major storms in the past two-and-a-half years between Albany, Ga., and Panama City, Florida (Category 5 Hurricane Michael devastated Panama City last fall).
“Over time, we have become more mechanized,” he says, adding that he avoids climbing as much as possible. “Our methodology involves one or more pieces of equipment. In every type of storm – ice, hurricanes, tornadoes – the way to prepare is to have your equipment in tip-top shape, especially for long-distance travel, and that includes having all permits in order.
“We don’t know exactly where a hurricane might land, but we have an idea a few days out. So we make sure that travel preparation includes tires designed for long-distance travel, tires with extra radial plies,” he says. “We have learned we have to have 10-ply if not 14-ply tires to withstand the harshness over long distances and also for dealing with driving over debris in the storm zone.”
Caldwell adds to the chorus on fuel. “Fuel is always a problem in the first seven to 10 days, so it is critical to make provisions for your own fuel – gas and diesel.”
Regarding basic needs, he states, “In several hurricanes we worked, we have had to camp out. Sometimes we brought a travel trailer and a lot of water. For the Panama City event, we brought tents and food. One of the first things you’ll realize is that there likely will be no place to stay.
“This kind of work takes a phenomenal amount of supplies. For example, there’s no one to supply you with tarps,” he muses. “And you’ll need more than an ample supply of clothing and extra safety and first-aid supplies. Stores are closed, and traffic is horrible.”
Caldwell vividly recalls the Panama City hurricane aftermath. “It was the most devastated place I have ever worked,” he says. “We did have some luck come our way. The place where we camped had water from a nearby building. But it was excruciatingly hot. There were nearly 20 of us initially, and we managed to set up an outdoor shower in the parking lot. Thankfully, we brought sufficient provisions. It took us three days to get things under control.
“Feeding workers is a logistical nightmare,” he reports. “I would set up a meal plan, and although crews would get in at all different hours, meals were waiting when they got in. Sometimes we had National Guard MREs (meals ready to eat) available to us, but dinner was always waiting. For me, that became the largest logistical thing I’ve been involved in.”
Staying on top of things
Changing conditions are another thing Caldwell warns of. “From time to time, an arborist will look at a job, make a quote and put in a work order. There is a fair amount of time from when the arborist looks at the job and crews get to the site. Say a tree is leaning on a house but has not crushed it. A few days later, that tree likely has moved and conditions have changed. Experience and creativity come into play, and supervisors often have to make a call to do a job in ways other than as they were briefed.
“Every person on the crew has to be totally involved in that job, from the arborist to the crew on the back end. All have to understand they may have to shift gears. It requires a tremendous amount of tactical awareness,” he maintains.
There is a human side to storm work, especially stretched over long periods, he notes. “One of the interesting things I have learned is the importance of recreation.
“If you work with people for up to two weeks, it becomes obvious they need to blow off steam, to enjoy themselves a bit. What I do every week or so is have a special dinner. In the case of Panama City and a storm on Hilton Head, it was to throw a Halloween party. I got costumes and caterers. No alcohol. It’s an opportunity to recharge,” he offers. “We have had some epic parties, including for snowstorms in Connecticut.
“On Sundays, we have a bit less work and find places to do laundry.” Sometimes, Caldwell says, they do not have that convenience, and it becomes a problem.
But most problems can be resolved. And, from what our member experts say, problem-solving starts in pre-planning for storm work, long before the actual problems present themselves.