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Hurricane Tree Tips

Mary Duryea surveys tree damage after a hurricane. UF/IFAS file photo. IFAS Annual Research Report 2008

Hurricane season is almost here, AGAIN.

June 1 will be the start of another hurricane season which will last until November 30. Many of us have learned lessons from the recent storms including Irma and Matthew. Now is a good time to start preparing, because once a storm is on the way it may be too late to take action. Homeowners should be prepared to be off the grid with enough essential supplies to last at least five days.

Some trees have an expected life span and present a risk once they are over-mature. For example laurel oaks are only expected to live about 50 years. This fact coupled with studies by the University of Florida that have shown laurel oaks to be a poor survivor of hurricane force winds could help a homeowner make a decision to remove trees at or near the end of their life that are likely to fail. In contrast live oaks have strong wood and a long life expectancy; therefore they are considered a good tree for hurricane prone areas.  In general, palms can handle hurricane force winds better than trees, but not all palms survive as well. Native sabal palms and Canary Island palms survive the best in Florida, while queen palms have proven to be poor survivors.

Site conditions can be a major contributing factor to tree failure during storms. Trees that have grown in an area with poor drainage or high water table may have shallower roots and can topple over due to a lack of friction when soils become saturated and high winds are present. Construction activities including sidewalks that cut supporting roots can make trees unstable and easily turned over during a storm. Areas with restricted root growth such as medians and parking lot islands do not allow enough space for tree roots to properly anchor and can also contribute to failures.

Cultural practices including improper pruning or a lack of preventative pruning can create trees that have defects such as co-dominant leaders, where instead of a single main trunk at the top it has two or more main leaders equal in size. This creates a condition where included bark forms an internal defect where the tree is weakened at the union, which often leads to tree failure. In a young tree co-dominant leaders can easily be corrected, but this becomes more difficult and dangerous to correct as the tree matures. Improper pruning such as topping creates a tree that doesn’t have a well-defined central leader and may have internal decay from poor healing. This is also true when a branch isn’t properly removed, poor healing can create a point of entry for decay which can later lead to tree failure.

You might be wondering who is responsible for removing a fallen or leaning tree. A tree that fell from a private property to an adjacent developed property is a civil issue. If the tree caused damage, that will probably require filing an insurance claim. Generally, if the tree that fell was in good condition, removal of the tree is the responsibility of the homeowner onto whose property the tree fell on. However, if there was a pre-documented hazardous condition that required action, the responsibility may be on the person who owns the property that the tree fell from.  

It is important to recognize the difference between a tree care professional and a certified arborist. Tree work can be very dangerous. Tree care professionals can handle simpler jobs. These include taking down trees without obstructions, and removing dead or hazardous limbs. More technical work should be done by International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)-certified arborists.http://www.treesaregood.org/findanarborist This includes removing leaning trees, removing limbs that could damage something if they fall, jobs requiring climbing, and pruning for restoration and/or tree health. ISA-certified arborists follow strict standards for safety and best management practices for tree care. Only qualified line-clearance arborists are allowed to work near electrical power lines. Contact the power company to report trees or limbs touching power lines. Always assume the lines are energized, even in areas where you know the power is out, because improper use of generators post-hurricane can energize lines.

Be cautious of individuals who lack proper insurance, training, and certification. Ask to see proof of insurance for property damage, worker’s compensation, and personal liability. If you hire an uninsured company or individual, you could be held responsible for costs related to any injuries that occur while the work is being done. Always get a written estimate and shop around. Keep in mind that quality tree work requires specialized equipment and training. Money you save in the short term may cost more over time due to poor tree health or liability. For more information visit http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FR/FR17100.pdf “Get the Right Tree Care Professional.” and “Wind and Trees: Lessons Learned for Hurricanes” http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fr173

Sol Looker is the Residential Horticulture Extension Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator at the Flagler County Extension Service, University of Florida. For more information contact the office, (386) 437-7464. The Extension Service is located at 150 Sawgrass Road Bunnell, Florida 32110.

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