Sept. 11 was already a somber and thought-provoking day for Americans before Sept. 11, 2017. That date also has the distinction of being the day Hurricane Irma barreled past Jacksonville, leaving in its wake a path of destruction and devastation not seen in decades in Northeast Florida.
At its peak, as it churned out in the Atlantic, Irma was the most powerful Atlantic category 5 storm in history. It had slowed to a tropical storm by the time it reached our area after wreaking havoc for 12 days. But with winds still reaching nearly 70 mph and record breaking flooding, Irma was still a powerful storm as it passed just west of Jacksonville on that fateful day.
Northeast Florida was just one of many communities devastated by the storm. And as area residents watched with nervous anticipation as the storm raced toward us, causing mayhem wherever it made landfall, the calls started coming in. They came in a trickle at first, beginning around the end of August. The calls then were mostly from those wanting to be proactive about their tree care. Then, as the storm started to cut its path through the Caribbean, the trickle of calls became a flood of panicked pleas for help to alleviate tree issues before they became tree emergencies and insurance claims.
Many locals already knew all too well the impacts a hurricane could have on our community. It had only been 11 short months since Hurricane Matthew made a name for itself in Jacksonville. We thought it couldn’t get much worse when that storm hit in 2016. Unfortunately, we were very wrong. It felt like déjà Vu as Irma approached, yet, because we’d been through it before, there was also more of a sense of dread than there had been the year before. We had reason fear what was about to happen.
By the time Irma hit, we had already been working two weeks straight on storm-related calls. As the soil became soaked with pounding torrential rain and high winds roared through trees, they began to crack and break like tooth picks. Many of the first trees to go had obvious signs of decay. But in some cases trees fell like dominoes, crashing into each other with enough force that multiple trees came down at the same time. Although many area residents tried to prepare as best they could to avoid tree damage, it’s hardy to anticipate mother nature’s fury.
Few places in the city were spared from at least some damage. Some neighborhoods, such as those in Mandarin and Fort Caroline where large mature trees are common, looked like war zones, with trees toppled on houses, fences, vehicles, utility lines and blocking roadways. Some trees snapped at the trunk, while others were felled from their base, often exposing a large rootball. Of those trees that did roof damage, some speared the roof, in some cases not stopping until they reached the floor. In other cases, they crushed in portions of the house like a wrecking ball.
Like most tree companies in Jacksonville, and those that traveled from other cities to help, we spent weeks working seven days straight, quiet literally from dawn until dusk, in dirty, wet, hot, and in some cases, extremely dangerous conditions as awkwardly twisted broken trunks and limbs creaked and cracked under the weight and pressure of themselves. It was chaotic, stressful and exhausting, not only physically and mentally trying to keep up, but emotionally too. For those with the most severe damage, their lives prior to Sept. 11, 2017 literally had to be put on hold while they waited. In some cases they had to go stay with friends or family, they missed work, they spent hours on the phone trying to reach anyone who could help. The air was very heavy with tension from those who were waiting, and depending on us.
We tried to concentrate on the most extreme emergencies first, but, as one frantic caller pointed out immediately after the storm, they were all emergencies. On call after call, customers seemed shell shocked by the extent of the devastation.
In several cases, customers who had the unfortunate experience of having a tree fall the year before during Hurricane Matthew experienced it again during Irma. Irma was indeed much worse than Matthew in terms of overall damage, in part due to flooding. The St. Johns River rose to its highest point since the 1800s, inundating the region’s many creeks and inland waterways, causing water levels to swell even in areas not known to be a flood risk. All that water washed out soil that normally held a firm grip on many trees, leading to even more damage.
Although the storm passed by in mere hours, the devastation it left behind took months to repair. As the slow process of storm clean up got underway large black loaders arrived to haul massive amounts of tree debris left behind. Vacant land parcels around the city were temporarily turned into tree landfills. Some customers had the misfortune of having trees on their homes weeks after the storm because there just simply wasn’t enough time in a day, or tree companies available, to keep up with the high demands.
In many cases, tree companies were the first to arrive at homes because the tree had to be removed before any other repair work could begin. Most people were glad to see us, and, more importantly, glad to see the constant reminder of Irma’s destruction removed from their home or property so they could begin the task of repairing the damage.
But, tree companies were certainly not the only profession in high demand after Irma. Electric companies worked around the clock restoring power to millions in Jacksonville and around the state in the days and weeks that followed. Fence companies, roofers, and home contractors, who often were needed after trees were removed, were busy for months afterward. Some insurance claims for Irma-related storm damage are still on going, a year later.
We were still doing storm related jobs as late as December. While the vast majority of trees fell during the storm, others were weakened enough that they toppled weeks, and, in a few cases, months later.
Although, in a way, it’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since Irma blew past Jacksonville, it’s hard to fathom that that much devastation actually happened. It’s harder still to imagine that it could have actually been far worse. Irma was not a direct hit. It had already weakened substantially by the time it reached the area. Area residents literally had weeks to prepare as best they could as weather reports anticipated its potential impact on Florida, and many did. Irma was hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Jacksonville residents and tree companies alike but, for us at least, it’s first anniversary is a reminder that it did happen, and could happen again. Never under-estimate the forces of Mother Nature.