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After Hurricane Irma, tree service companies flooded with calls

Mark Michaels of Mark Michaels Tree Service works on moving branches at a home on 86th Avenue N in St. Petersburg. A tree had fallen on the home owners roof and they called the tree service to remove it. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times

Mark Michaels of Mark Michaels Tree Service works on moving branches at a home on 86th Avenue N in St. Petersburg. A tree had fallen on the home owners roof and they called the tree service to remove it. EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published Sep. 14, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Certified arborist Mark Michaels tilted his head up to the uprooted tree leaning against the Barcley Estates home. A cedar next door also crashed into the back yard. He knew clearing them would take at least half the day.

Then, his phone rang. It was another homeowner, the latest in a string of nearly 30 calls Michaels received since residents in Pinellas County emerged from their homes Monday morning to assess the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Irma.

Across Tampa Bay, trees toppled over houses, cars, and power lines. That means tree removal companies like Michaels' business, comprised of five workers and two trucks, will be busy the next few weeks bringing a sense of normalcy to homes.

"My head's spinning with being on top of this," Michaels said. "I wish I had 10 trucks or 20 trucks to deal with it all."

• • •

Michaels got into his Chevrolet Volt and rested a notebook on his steering wheel. He cracked it open and stared at the handwritten list of home addresses he needed to visit for price estimates.

Michaels punched the address for a home in the Tyrone area into his phone. A few minutes later, it rang again.

"I've not looked at it, but I'm definitely going to look at it today," he said to the caller. "It's on the list."

For his business, Mark Michaels Tree Service, a typical day could include a few jobs. His crew had recently booked a job to trim 1,400 palm trees near the Gandy Bridge. But on Tuesday morning, Michaels called to postpone the assignment. Dozens of homeowners still needed his help.

He pulled up to the house on 77th Street N, took a deep breath, and opened his car door. Holly Baudendistel greeted him and pointed at the live oak in her front yard. It was leaning over. She wanted Michaels' advice: should she cut it down or remove some of the branches?

Michaels gave her an estimate for both and said it would take some time for him to come back to do the work. He wanted to help homeowners affected by trees that crashed onto their houses.

Baudendistel understood. "I want those people to go first," she said.

• • •

Across Tampa Bay, other tree removal businesses have been inundated with calls. Pete and Ron's Tree Service, which services homes in Hillsborough and Pinellas, has received about 150 requests.

"It's crazy busy," said owner Pete Fernandez, adding that, just like Michaels, they are first responding to calls about felled trees on houses or cars. "That's our first priority."

Luis Santos, who has clients in St. Petersburg, said he will be in the middle of clearing out a client's yard when a neighbor will approach him for an estimate.

"That's how I get the jobs, right where I'm working," he said. "There are a lot of tree companies, but there's so much work to do."

Some tree removal companies received an avalanche of calls even before Irma arrived. Homeowners wanted trees trimmed or removed, fearing it would crush their roofs.

Kevin Dyer, owner of another tree removal company in Pinellas, said he got several such calls ahead of Irma.

"I wasn't able to make it to all of them," he said. "And that bothers me, you know what I mean. I couldn't get to all the calls. It just wasn't possible."

• • •

Homeowner Fran Bigelow stood outside and snapped photos of her damaged Barcley Estates home for her insurance claim. For 30 years, the monkey puzzle tree towered over her house. She loved the way its branches draped over its trunk. But her husband wasn't fond of the thorns that covered its limbs.

"It was just a pretty tree," she said. "He's been after me to cut it down for 10 years."

Michaels' team soon realized the thorns would be a problem. He went to Target to buy garden gloves, but the store was all out. He bought cleaning rubber gloves instead.

When Michaels returned from Tyrone, the trunk was bare, its branches resting in piles on the front yard. Paul Mysliwiec, an arborist on Michaels' team, climbed to the top of the trunk and sliced pieces off with a chain saw.

They landed on the ground with a thud.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.