Drought, rains lead to deadly falling trees

By Ed Brock

The 60-foot oak tree that stood in front of a 100-year-old house Jack Branan owns on North Avenue in Jonesboro never gave him cause for concern.

But it still collapsed during an afternoon downpour that swept through the area last week, falling on the house and punching a hole in the roof.

"People who saw said it hit so hard it jarred the door open," Branan said.

Branan said the woman and her 12-year-old son who rent the house weren't home at the time and he has arranged for temporary quarters for them while the house is under repair. The damage was actually slight, and Branan said the tree had appeared to be as solid as the house.

"That's what's happening with all these old oaks," Branan said. "They're rotten in the middle and nobody wants to cut down a hardwood."

Falling trees have wreaked havoc throughout the Atlanta, killing at least five people. The most recent was David Lewis, 38, of Jasper who was killed Thursday when a 20-foot-long, 14-inch in diameter tree limb fell on his car as he was driving to the store.

The week before that Lisa Cunard, 37, of Atlanta was in the back seat with her two sons, Max Colvin, 3, and 6-month-old Owen William, when a 70-foot tree uprooted and crush the back half of the Toyota Landcruiser in which they were passengers.

Father and husband Brad Cunard was driving the vehicle and escaped serious injury.

On June 30 a visiting Georgia Tech professor from Yokohama was killed when a limb fell off a tree and crushed his car in which he was waiting for a storm to pass.

The number of falling trees has been high in recent months, and the primary reason seems to be heavy rains coming after years of drought.

"For the last five years trees have been stressed," said Marco Fonseca, an arborist at the experiment station at the University of Georgia's Griffin campus.

Georgia trees have lost a lot of root area as a result of the drought and now the heavy rains are saturating and loosening the earth.

"The trees have lost a lot of their grabbing power," Fonseca said. "All you need is a little wind and they will come down."

The water from the rain also makes the trees' branches heavier and more likely to snap, Fonseca said.

With the recent incidents of trees falling, business has been up for tree trimming and removal services like Pro Tree.

"People are a lot more concerned with their trees," said Pro Tree owner Gregg Buice. "They don't want to be victims."

Of course, one way or another trees die, Buice said, so his 13-person crew is never really short of business in Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties where they operate.

The price range for removing a tree depends on factors such as the diameter of the trunk and placement, Buice said. On average it costs between $200 to $300 to simply remove a tree, but Buice has handled jobs that ran as high as over $10,000.

"That's unusual," Buice said.

Buice added that most tree trimmers provide free estimates.

Once a tree falls on someone's house or vehicle their insurance company will usually pay even if the tree was on a neighboring property, Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John W. Oxendine said.

"The exception is when you can show negligence on the part of the neighbor," Oxendine said. "But that can be tricky, you have to go to court and prove negligence."

Also, the homeowner is responsible for removing any tree that poses a threat to their home or property, and failure to do so can complicate a claim if the tree does fall and the homeowner knew it to be a threat, Oxendine said.

People with questions regarding their insurance coverage can call Oxendine's office between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. at (404) 656-2070.

Pro Tree is one of three companies most frequently called when a tree threatens one of Clayton County's roadways, said the county's Transportation and Development Director Wayne Patterson.

Mill's Tree Experts and Southside Tree Service are two others that most often submit bids.

"We have an aggressive program of looking at trees on our right-of-ways," Patterson said. "We're constantly looking for trees that are showing signs of drought or limbs that are falling off."

This week the county had to remove some limbs from an oak that stands on Mt. Zion Boulevard just south of Mt. Zion Road.

"The limb reached all the way over both lanes, and it had died," said Clayton County Public Works Manager Hubert Webb. "If that limb had fallen off it would have really hurt somebody."

That threat went unnoticed by some.

"I never really thought about it," said Diane Segrest, an employee at Bruster's Old Fashioned Ice Cream. "And I have to drive out that way."

Like their counterparts in Clayton County, Henry County Department of Transportation employees are always on the lookout for trees that threaten to fall into roadways and rely on calls from the public, said Jerry Tolbert, the department's interim director. They often lose trees from construction projects that get too close to the tree.

"Once you get into that root system (and cause damage) you can just about bet that in five to six years you're going to lose that tree," Tolbert said.

Choosing a reliable tree service is usually just a matter of looking in the phone book, Tolbert said.

"Most of them if they're in the Yellow Pages, they're reputable," Tolbert said.

But people should be warned that there are traveling groups that promise to do the work for a certain amount of money but don't complete the job, Tolbert said. People should ask for references.

"There's a bunch of crooks out there," Tolbert said.

Mary Rigdon of Conley chose Southside Tree to take down some trees on her property after seeing some of the work they'd done on other houses in her neighborhood. She also made sure they had the proper insurance.

Southside Tree crews were removing an oak that died after being struck by lightning and some pine trees that were too close to her house, Rigdon said.

"In the ice storms in the wintertime we've had some branches glance off the house," Rigdon said.

So far there are no other trees on her five-acre plot that threaten to fall on something valuable.

"If we thought thee was a danger we'd definitely have something done about them," Rigdon said.