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Power is lost as trees topple

Drought-weakened trees fall, knocking down lines and power to more than 500,000 people.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


Drought-weakened trees fall, knocking down lines and power to more than 500,000 people.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The combination of drought and recent rains caused an unusually large number of trees and tree limbs to fall during Tropical Storm Gabrielle, experts said.

Many of those knocked out power lines, causing most of the outages for more than 500,000 customers along the west coast of Florida, the bulk of those in counties from Manatee south.

"They get drought rot," Ken Johnston, owner of Triangle Tree Service in St. Petersburg, said of many of the fallen trees he was called to saw into pieces Friday.

That means the core of a tree dies while the outer layer of the trunk survives, making the tree weak inside while appearing healthy, he said. "It rots them out, a lot of them right at the base of the tree," he said. That leaves the trees weak enough to snap or split and fall onto homes or power lines.

Pete Fernandez, co-owner of Pete & Ron's Tree Service, said he saw more instances of trees that the drought killed completely falling over during the high winds. He works in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties, with most of his calls Friday coming from Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties, he said.

"People have been letting some of these dead trees go, and some of them are falling down," Fernandez said. He said some healthy trees blew over in the storm as well. "Ninety percent of the calls we're getting are whole trees down on houses."

Recent rains made the trees easier to uproot, said National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Close.

That's probably what happened to a large mimosa on St. Petersburg's Snell Isle Boulevard NE and an oak in the city's Mirror Lake Park.

St. Petersburg city engineer Mike Connors said trees have absorbed lots of water from the ground recently, making their limbs and trunks heavier than before and prone to snap.

Maybe that's what happened at Kristine Lalley's house on 55th Avenue N, also in St. Petersburg. The wood of the huge limbs that fell onto the roof of her house looked healthy all the way through, she said.

Removing debris and restoring power is taking time. That forced people like Lalley to wait a long time Friday.

"They said it was on a power line, and our power has been flickering on and off," Lalley said the St. Petersburg Fire Department told her about her limb. "Florida Power still hasn't come out to take care of it. I called them again and again and they just say, "We know; we know.' "

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