Shiver me timbers!

Published 12:29 pm Thursday, August 26, 2010

Staff Writer

As the peak of hurricane season approaches, many coastal residents have already taken precautions by stocking up on food supplies, water, first-aid items and batteries.
Yet one critical area of hurricane preparedness that often goes overlooked can be spotted right outside a window or door: tree pruning.
The City of Washington works year-round administering a tree trimming program designed to keep Mother Nature from causing power outages.
“Ninety percent of (power) outages are going to be trees,” said Keith Hardt, executive director of Washington Electric Utilities. “Any place we have an overhead power line, there is a threat for a tree to come down and cause outages. We are on a three- to five-year cycle where our contract crew goes around and trims trees back to 15 feet from the power line. We could always do more trimming, but it’s something we do constantly.”
Hardt strongly discourages property owners from trimming trees near power lines, recommending instead that it be handled by professionals. Minister-turned-arborist Gene Scarborough agrees, while warning that lady luck is not a sensible long-term solution to the potential problem.
“Basically, we have had about three years of no unnecessary tree work,” said Scarborough, owner of Affordable/Professional Tree Surgeons in Bath. “In other words, unless people have it on their house or threatening the devil, they let it sit where normally they would let professionals come through and lighten the branches and clean out the suckers so wind can blow through.”
“The question with the wind is if it’s blowing against a sail or an umbrella,” Scarborough added.
An unpruned tree catches the wind like a sail which knocks it over. A pruned tree allows the wind to pass through it like an umbrella.
Wayne Woolard’s regular customers keep their trees trimmed, but that has proven to be the exception and not the rule.
“There’s a small percentage of people that take care of their trees regardless of whether a hurricane is coming or not,” the owner of Wayne’s Tree Service said. “You have a very small percentage who will do something before hurricane season. Generally, people in this county don’t do anything to prepare.”
The trees in Beaufort County face additional risks other than the wind.
“They have a bunch of trees (in Washington Park) with two problems,” Scarborough said. “The pecan trees are eaten up with tent worms. This is a particularly bad year with tent worms. The other issue is a bunch of live oak trees. If they get too big, they get weak areas that could come apart in a wind storm.”
The tent worms, or caterpillars, which set up nests in pecan trees, reduce the aerodynamics of the tree, which can lead to disaster when a storm comes through.
“Washington this year is close to devastating with tent caterpillars,” Woolard said. “They reduce the wind resistance in most trees 30 to 40 percent.”
Woolard recommends using a fertilizer spreader to dispense granulated slow-release Sevin dust around the tree which will kill the eggs.
“The best way to get rid of them is on the ground,” Woolard said. “The eggs on the ground will come out two, three, four or five years from now. It will kill those eggs and they can’t crawl up the tree.”
Despite the potential for a large profit in the wake of a hurricane, both Scarborough and Woolard prefer a preventative approach.
“I would rather save an old (tree) and give it a lifetime than cut it down,” Scarborough said. “As an arborist, you are interested in trees and preserving them as much as possible.”
“I don’t like doing hurricane work,” Woolard said. “I would rather see people spend money on the proper care and maintenance of trees and to maintain them properly. You can’t trim a pecan tree the same as an elm tree. If you know what you are looking for, trees will tell you what’s happening.”
Woolard also forewarned of the consequences of a direct-hit hurricane on the Inner Banks.
“We’ve had high water, we’ve had wind, we’ve had the remnants of the outskirts of a hurricane,” Woolard said. “We’ve never had a direct hurricane. If we have one, it will take out 90 percent of the trees. It will devastate the area.”