SOUTH TAMPA — For 11 years, Shelly Hollingsworth appreciated the shade cast over her block by its tall laurel and live oak trees.
But that all ended two weeks ago when she drove onto her street and found much of the canopy gone. All she could do was stare.
Tampa Electric crews had made their way to Julia Street as part of their plan to prune trees every three years to avoid major blackouts during storms. Every week, year-round, they slice branches near power lines throughout Hillsborough County and parts of Pasco and Pinellas.
Sometimes, once-sprawling trees are left ugly skeletons of their former selves.
But the company says that in some cases, it's either looks or lives.
On Hollingsworth's street, the canopies were sliced deep. She fired off an angry e-mail and photos to every media outlet she could think of, Tampa Electric and the mayor.
She titled it "tree tragedy."
She's not the only one to complain about branches and limbs seemingly whacked by electric companies across the country.
If the companies are criticized for anything, it's often tree pruning. Yet the practice is among their most expensive budget items, with a yearly nationwide cost of $1.5-billion. And, Tampa Electric arborists say, it's the most effective in preventing power outages and electrocutions, especially during a hurricane.
Since Tampa Electric beefed up its tree pruning program two years ago, its crews have become more visible. If you haven't seen them yet, you may soon. This week, they were scheduled to be everywhere from Temple Terrace to Bloomingdale to the West Shore area.
Pruning, experts say, can prevent catastrophe.
Consider the blackout of 2003, one of the largest in history. Across the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, and into Canada, trains stopped. Gas pumps, elevators and air conditioning systems were rendered useless. Looters took to the streets.
The blackout affected 50-million people. They burned candles, which caused fires. They fired up generators, which produce carbon monoxide. Several died.
A final report pinpointed the primary culprit: overgrown trees.
When branches touch power lines, the wood acts as a conductor, which can release thousands of volts and cause short circuits, power outages and fires.
In 2004 and 2005, back-to-back hurricanes led to major power outages in Florida. People questioned the viability of electric companies — could their power lines withstand the storm?
The electric companies blamed the trees and, in 2006, the Florida Public Service Commission began requiring them to trim trees every three years.
That's why, every year, Tampa Electric trims one-third of the trees in its coverage area.
Hollingsworth understands the need, but still feels her trees were "chopped" haphazardly. They look like giant V's, with power lines running down the open middle.
"It's really disgusting," she said.
Tim Boylan, another Julia Street resident, calls Tampa Electric's trimming job "careless." He said two trees in his back yard died after the utility company trimmed them. "They took almost every single branch off the trees."
John Webster, a certified arborist and forester who works for Tampa Electric, said the trimming style focuses on the tree's health and ensures reliable power service. Looks aren't as important.
Instead of cutting small branches touching the power lines, which would create lots of little stubs, Webster says the tree can heal faster if you make fewer cuts to major limbs.
He said the death of a tree is rare, but if the tree is already declining and would die anyway, the trimming could accelerate death. "Aside from the aesthetics," he said, "it is not all that invasive to the tree."
Robert Northrop, a forester with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Hillsborough County Extension, said utility company standards for pruning trees work.
"Believe me, I'm not trying to take a stand for 'It looks great' or anything," Northrop said. "They do the best they can."
Information from the USDA Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture was used in this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.