Cleaning Up After a Hurricane

An oak tree split almost in halfCleaning up after a hurricane can be a dangerous project. Many jobs should be left to professionals (see "Hiring a Professional"). If you do take on smaller jobs yourself, make sure you have the right tools and safety gear to prevent unnecessary loss of life and limb.

Safety First!

Safety should always be your first concern when cleaning up your yard after a hurricane. Make sure you have the right tools, equipment, and basic safety knowledge before you begin working. More information about safety in the landscape is available at the Florida AgSafe website.

When you clean up tree damage after a storm, do not work alone. Recruit at least one partner to help you. Before you begin, you and your partner should survey the site. Identify the hazards and agree where injuries are most likely to happen. Come up with communication signals to use if you move out of each other's earshot.

Create a safe work zone by setting a perimeter more than two times the height of the tree you're working on. Mark the perimeter with bright-colored tape or cones, and keep non-workers outside this perimeter. Appoint a person to act as the "flagger" for traffic, or use barricades and warning signs.

Keep a well-stocked first-aid kit handy and know how to use everything in it. Avoid lifting objects that weigh more than 50 pounds, and lift with the legs (not the back) to reduce the chance of injury.

Last, but not least, avoid overexertion. Most injuries occur when workers are tired.

Using a Chain Saw

Chain saws may be the most dangerous power tool available to the public. Their blades can move up to 68 miles per hour, and their mufflers can get as hot as 900 degrees. During hurricane cleanup, when they are widely used to remove trees and branches, the risk of injury from chain saws increases. Follow these simple guidelines to help avoid such injuries.

  • Always read and follow the instruction manual that comes with your chain saw. Learn how to start and operate your particular saw safely.
  • Look for a chain saw with the following safety functions: a low-kickback chain, a hand guard, and a chain brake.
  • Wear protective equipment. Equipment for chain saw operators includes: protective head gear (a helmet), hearing protection, protective glasses and face shield, gloves, leg chaps, and heavy work boots. By keeping key areas of the body covered, you reduce the chance of injury.
  • Keep both hands on the chain saw handles at all times. Never use the saw with just one hand. Many chain saw injuries are the result of using the saw one-handed.
  • Cut at waist level or below. Always use the saw pointed downwards. Injuries to the head and face often result from making cuts above head level. Never cut a branch or trunk higher than your waist.
  • Cut AWAY from your body. Push the saw away from your body to make a cut. Never pull it towards yourself.
  • Avoid kickback. Kickback is when the upper tip of the saw blade contacts an object and causes the saw to come straight back at the operator. Kickback happens so fast that there is no time for reaction. To avoid kickback, never cut with the upper tip of the chain saw. Cut with the part of the blade closest to the engine. Watch the tip at all times, and make sure it does not come into contact with the ground or other branches.
  • Shut off the saw when refueling it or when carrying it a distance of more than a few feet, through slippery areas, or through heavy weeds or brush.
  • Make your presence known. Don't approach a chain saw operator unless you're sure he is aware of your presence. Because of the safety gear and the saw's noise, a chain saw operator often cannot see or hear the approach of other people.
  • Take your time to do the job right. Fatigue leads to injuries, so take breaks when you need them. If you're feeling too tired, stop working altogether.
  • Be extra careful when cutting bent or twisted limbs. Limbs that are bent, twisted, or caught under another object are more likely to snap back and hit you or the saw.
  • Unplug the saw when you walk away from it. Coil the wire and put the saw away when you're done using it.

Hiring a Professional

During hurricane cleanup, it's important to identify which jobs need to be done by professionals. For example, if you are a homeowner, use a chain saw only when you are on the ground. Get a tree-care professional to do all other work, including any that involves climbing. Do not use ladders or ropes.

There are different types of professionals you can contact. A tree-care professional with adequate equipment and insurance can take down trees in open areas or remove dead or hazardous limbs. A certified arborist, preferably one certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), is best to handle the following:

  • Removing a leaning tree or broken limb near a house or other potential target.
  • Reaching limbs that require climbing.
  • Restoring a damaged tree that could be saved.
  • Pruning to promote good structure.

Hiring an arborist can be a worthwhile investment. Trees increase property value when they are well maintained but can become a liability if poorly pruned or unhealthy. Find a qualified arborist by asking the following questions:

  • Are you insured for property damage, personal liability, and worker's compensation? Hiring an uninsured company can make you responsible for medical bills and lost wages if a worker gets injured on your property.
  • Are you certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)? Being certified requires professional experience and knowledge of the best techniques in the industry. Arborists attend training courses and continuing education classes to learn the latest research.
  • What are the ANSI Z133.1 and ANSI A300 guidelines? The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) prints these two guidelines. ANSI Z133.1 delineates safety standards for tree-care operators in the United States. ANSI A300 identifies the best management practices in the industry for pruning and other tree-care operations. Make sure your arborist is familiar with both of these.
  • What are the procedures involved, equipment used, price, and time frame? Get more than one written estimate. Keep in mind that specialized equipment, qualified skills, and insurance will be more expensive. Good tree work is worth the additional investment; in the long run, poor work will likely end up costing you more.

To find an ISA-certified arborist in your area, contact:

Electrical Hazards

Only qualified line-clearance arborists should work near electrical utilities damaged during the storm. Trees can uproot underground utilities and tear down power lines during hurricanes. The combination of electrical wires and floodwater creates an extremely hazardous environment. Line-clearance arborists alone are qualified to work on these grounds.

Use Caution

Again, safety should always come first. Call the power company to report tree limbs fallen on power lines. Assume all power lines are dangerous, and do not touch them. Electrocution may occur if any part of your body touches a conductor (water, tool, tree branch, metal fence) in contact with an energized power line.

Sometimes large storms can devastate a community's trees. The cleanup of storm damage can be dangerous and expensive. But the good news is that after a hurricane, a community has the chance to better plan its urban forest so that future storms do less damage.