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After Hurricanes, Buzzing Chainsaws Mark The Loss Of Trees

A city worker cuts down a tree on Culloden More Court off South Tryon Street.
David Boraks
A city worker cuts down a damaged Bradford Pear on Culloden More Court off South Tryon Street on Wednesday

Charlotte neighborhoods have been a cacophony of chainsaws for weeks — since Hurricane Florence and then Tropical Storm Michael blew down trees and limbs around the city.  

Tree removal is a familiar scene in a city with so many large, old trees — more so after a storm like Michael. Its 50 mph winds knocked down several hundred trees as well as large limbs and utility lines.

So what are the rules, and what should you think about when hiring a tree service?

Street trees are the city's responsibility, and they’re keeping city crews busy. Any other fallen or damaged trees are up to property owners.

For city-maintained trees, Assistant City Arborist Laurie Reid said city crews and contractors have been working 24 hours a day.

Assistant Charlotte Arborist Laurie Reid
Credit David Boraks / WFAE-FM
Assistant Charlotte Arborist Laurie Reid

“We definitely want to get roads cleared that are going to prohibit emergency vehicles from coming through,” Reid said, as a crew cut down a damaged Bradford Pear in a neighborhood off South Tryon Street.

“We had some neighborhoods that may have been a dead end street — like the one we're standing on right here — that the road got completely blocked, so you've got five-six houses that are completely penned in,” she said.

Reid said older, majestic trees make for a slower cleanup. One oak that fell on Queens Road was nearly a hundred years old and 46 inches in diameter.

“That takes a lot of time for the material to get out of the road, to get everything cut, to get everything cleared," she said. "So it's a several-day cleanup process."

And another factor: City crews have to wait until power or communications companies finish their work before they can safely remove trees, Reid said.

More than 360 streets were blocked after Michael — more than Hurricane Florence in September. By Thursday, only one street was still blocked.


Charlotte has an estimated 200,000 street trees — those within the city right-of-way. The right-of-way can extend from a few feet to more than 15 feet onto a residential lot. The city takes care of them even when there's not a storm cleanup, Reid said.

Workers remove a Bradford Pear that was damaged by Tropical Storm Michael.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Workers remove a Bradford Pear that was damaged by Tropical Storm Michael.

“So any tree that's located in the public right-of-way, the city of Charlotte Landscape Management, we maintain those trees,” she said. “Say the tree needs to be pruned or the tree needs to be removed, or if there's an empty space and a new tree needs to be planted, that's what we do at our department.”

Reid said owners can call anytime they have concerns about trees. The public right-of-way is marked on the county’s online real estate mapping system POLARIS (just click the “hybrid” button on the upper right), or property owners can call for the information. The number is: 704 336-4262.


So what if it's not a city-managed tree? If you're a property owner, it's your responsibility — both clearing after a storm and generally watching its health.

You paint your house and you fix your roof. Trees are no different, Reid said.

"That is one thing that I think people kind of take for granted," she said. "They don't realize that they do actually need to care for their trees."

Removing a tree — whether after it falls or if it's at the end of its life — can be expensive. Experts say you should expect to spend several thousand dollars or more. It all comes down to how much time it's going to take.

Patrick George
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Patrick George

"I'd say for every foot in diameter of a tree, you're looking at probably close to a thousand dollars,” Patrick George, owner of Heartwood Tree Service in Charlotte, said. "If it's close to a house, hard to access and you can't get equipment to it, the price only goes up"

It can get pretty high. A 100-year-old oak next to a house could be a $10,000 job, he said.

“We've had probably ten trees in the last three years that were over $10,000 to remove them,” George said.


Reid and George both said you should pay attention to your trees. Prune them regularly, note where limbs are dead or dying, and keep an eye out for mushrooms at the base and other signs of disease.  

A tree service can help. And whether it's for tree removal or routine maintenance, there are a few guidelines, said George.

“At the very least, get certificates of insurance. Any reputable company can have their provider e-mail them to you immediately,” he said.

“Secondly, I feel almost stupid saying this, but it happens every year: Don't pay anybody till the job's done,” George said.

And third, George said, look for professional certifications. The International Society of Arboriculture lists more than 300 certified arborists statewide and several dozen in Charlotte. And ask your neighbors. Many will have advice — and stories to tell.

The remains of an old pin oak that toppled at Clement Avenue and Bay Street during tropical storm Michael.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
The remains of an old pin oak that toppled at Clement Avenue and Bay Street during tropical storm Michael.


For many homeowners, the loss of a tree is a sad moment. Greg Godley lives in Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood. His old pin oak fell into the intersection of Clement Avenue and Bay Street during Michael, bringing down utility poles and wires.

“It looked relatively healthy, and when it fell over, we noticed that the roots were still rather intact and didn't look like it was rotten,” he said.

The city-contracted crew that removed it told him that it probably fell when its roots loosened in rain-soaked soil.   

The contractors cut it up, though a big piece of the trunk was still in the street on Thursday, a week after the storm.

Godley said the city has been preventively removing aging street trees like this one — much to his dismay.

"We love our trees in our neighborhood, and we wish they would live forever," he said. "But that's wishful thinking."

They won't live forever, but maybe they'll live a bit longer. Experts say regular maintenance can make the difference.


TreesCharlotte.org – a public-private organization dedicated to the city’s trees

City of Charlotte Landscape Management tree resources page on CharlotteNC.gov

The International Society of Arboriculture, http://www.isa-arbor.com/

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.