A tree crew battles to clean up after Hurricane Florence, one house at a time

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Kathy Matthews awoke around 4:15 a.m. Monday to a tremendous crash and leapt to her window to find an 80-foot pine only feet from her face and barging into her kitchen. Six hours later, Umberto Castillo was on the other side of the window, astride the trunk, trying to figure out what to do about it with his chainsaw.

It would take a crew of eight men, four trucks and a crane to get the pine off the Matthews’ house and into the street where it could be chopped up and hauled away. For Jimmy Everett, it was one of three houses in the Triangle his tree service handled Monday, whiling away the day on local jobs while waiting for the call to head down east.


Umberto Castillo dangles from a tree during the removal of a fallen pine tree in Cary after Hurricane Florence on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

Everett Tree Service has two crews working in Fayetteville and this one in the Triangle, but their real work will begin when insurance claims start coming in from Jacksonville and Wilmington. Everett was hoping to have been down there as early as Saturday night, but the slow movement of Hurricane Florence and blocked and flooded roads have conspired to push that back. And back. And back.

Everett had three scout cars on the road Sunday, trying to find a way through to Wilmington on back roads. One got as far as East Arcadia in Bladen County, within 40 miles of Wilmington, only to find every possible avenue impassable – an eight-hour trip that ended up going nowhere.

Everett, who is from Pender County, has 11 family members staying with him. Their house in Sneads Ferry was devastated by Florence, the roof shredded and ceilings caved in. It will be days before they can go back. He is ready to hit the road and get to work.

“I’ve been trying to do something,” Everett said. “Anything.”

Everett got his start as an engineering student at N.C. State during Fran in 1996, when he bought a chainsaw to get a tree off his aunt’s house. Two decades later, he has two cranes, two bucket lifts, 19 trucks and as much work as he can handle at the moment.

In the wake of a hurricane like Florence or an ice storm, tree crews like this one are as ubiquitous as the convoys of utility trucks, going from damaged house to damaged house, removing fallen trees. This is the busy time. Once his crews can get to the disaster zone, they’ll stay for two weeks, living out of RVs, pulling trees off houses and leaving the carcasses there, wasting no time on cleanup. Everett can rattle off names of storms like pets; his men have been to Connecticut for a tornado and Florida for a hurricane in the past year. They don’t have as far to go this time, when they finally can go.


Covered in wood chips, Rafael Ventura looks on as his crew continues to remove a fallen pine from a house in north Raleigh on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

While he waits, he’s taking local jobs. Monday started with a house in Chapel Hill that had a pine tree fall onto its roof, breaking a skylight. That was a tricky one, with the driveway too narrow to bring in his 50-ton crane. Everett himself did the sawing on that one, with men straining on ropes to hold each half of the tree in place as it cleaved in two.

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The second job of the day, at Matthews’ house in north Raleigh, was more typical. The tall pine had uprooted in soggy ground, falling into the elbow of the L-shaped split-level. It missed the bedrooms but impaled the roof with several branches that reached down into the kitchen and blew a sliding glass door into tiny shards.

Everett backed his crane into Matthews’ driveway, on the opposite side of the house from the tree, and gathered his crew to discuss the plan. After clearing as many loose branches as possible from the top of the tree as it rested on the roof, they would put slings under the trunk, attach them to the crane and try to slice off a 5,000-pound chunk – as much as the crane can hold at that distance.


Umberto Castillo peeks out from a tangle of limbs as he assesses how to get a fallen pine of the roof of a house in north Raleigh on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

Castillo – who everyone calls, simply, “Castillo” – is the lead with the chainsaw. Royce Wilkerson, a friend of Everett’s whose grading company is on hiatus because it’s too wet to work, joined him on the roof, with a radio to guide the crane. Wilkerson’s employee Brad Young added general labor in the backyard.

The other regular members of Everett’s team all had defined jobs: Juan Santos drives the Bobcat, which has hooks to grab logs and loose brush and shove them into the wood-chipper, which is run by Elmer Perez. Francisco “Paco” Aldaz is the second saw man, working in the street to cut up logs after Everett, in the crane, lifts them over the house. Aldaz is just getting started in that job, but his father Luis has worked for Everett for years – and its Luis’ name written on Aldaz’s chainsaw. And Rafael Ventura, who drives one of the trucks, is also the pole saw specialist, trimming branches off the fallen trunks while others figure out how to lift them.


Francisco “Paco” Aldaz’s chainsaw, with his father Luis’ name on it, sits idle between Hurricane Florence cleanup jobs on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

Some of what they do is just labor, cutting and hauling and shredding and raking. But in every job, there’s a point where a decision has to be made. On this one, it was where to cut the trunk to make sure the crane could handle the weight – and so that the newly freed pieces would not swing into the house or do any more damage.

“The house is pre-broken, but we can’t break any more,” Everett said. “This is where we make the big money.”

Everett got out of the crane to discuss it with Castillo, in Spanish. When they had the slings hooked up, Santos started yelling at Castillo that one of the slings could slip off. Technically, this isn’t Santos’ turf. But he has worked for Everett for a decade and isn’t shy about offering his opinion.


Bobcat operator Juan Santos wipes away sweat after clearing away tree debris in Raleigh in the wake of Hurricane Florence on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

“I have much experience in this job,” Santos said, in Spanish. “I look, I can see it’s not good.”

The others don’t mind, because as Ventura put it, Santos really is a wizard with the Bobcat.

“He’s the best,” Ventura said. “The best one. There’s nobody like him.”

Decisions made, Castillo climbed on top of the trunk and started sawing through it. After clambering off, he made the final cut from below in a haze of sawdust, until the trunk was weakened enough where the tension applied by the crane yanked the top half upward as the bottom half of the trunk sagged to the ground. From the street, Matthews watched as the 2 ½-ton chunk of tree was lifted high over her house and the surrounding pines, then dropped in front of her to be sawed apart.


A 5,000-pound chunk of pine tree dangles from a crane during cleanup from Hurricane Florence in Raleigh on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

On a normal storm job, not a lot of time is spent on clean-up. There’s too much to do in a disaster zone.. Logs are left where they fall, a long list of emergency removals ahead. But this was a local job, with potential clients watching from the curb, so every branch was gathered and hauled to the street and the roof dusted by leaf-blowers before a waiting disaster-recovery team started climbing up with hammers and tarps to repair the damage.

A Papa John’s delivery man wandered up, slightly confused. The stack of pizzas and boxes of wings were set up on a brick wall in the driveway, and the crew tore into them with sawdust-covered and sap-stained hands. Before leaving, Perez used a leaf blower to blow-dry Aldaz and Wilkerson, releasing an aerosol mist of sweat from their sodden shirts.

Plucking trees off houses isn’t any more difficult than a normal day of tree work, but it is much slower. A big pine tree like the one that fell on Matthews’ house, when standing, can be lopped off in two-ton chunks that are easily lifted away by the crane. When it’s leaning on a roof, the process is far more surgical.

“In normal time,” Santos says, then makes three slashing noises. “Three pieces, we leave.”

Still waiting on a route to Jacksonville, Everett moved the entire procession to an apartment complex in Cary, where a pine tree had folded at its base like a broken toothpick, coming to rest on the corner of a two-story building. Everett and Castillo took some time to consider this one. The crane could get no closer than the opposite side of the building, limiting its lifting capacity. And the complex requested the Bobcat not tear up the grass, so it couldn’t be used to pull on a rope for leverage.


Jimmy Everett, left, and Umberto Castillo discuss how to get a fallen pine off a Cary apartment building on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

It would be an easy job with a bigger crane, a 200-ton crane that could easily lift the tree from that distance. But that costs more, and would take longer to arrange. There’s money to be made finding ways to take bigger trees with smaller equipment.

The strategy was three-pronged: Castillo would climb a neighboring pine and place a pulley about 40 feet up, then run a rope through that, anchored by the stationary Bobcat. Another piece of small tree-moving equipment would support the trunk near its base. And the crane would hoist the top of the tree. When cut, it would hopefully pop off the roof, from where it could be slid sideways and lowered to the ground.


Elmer Perez unties a bundle of limbs dropped in the street by a crane as his tree crew cleans up after Hurricane Florence on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

Castillo, for the first time Monday, strapped on his climbing spikes and went scurrying up the tree. After placing the pulley, he lowered himself to the fallen tree and clambered up the trunk to the roof to make the necessary attachments to the crown of the tree.

There was a big wild card: The tree that fell wasn’t the only diseased tree in its row of pines. The pulley was attached to the sturdiest-looking one, but there was no guarantee it would hold. Even the act of tensioning the rope with the Bobcat bent the tree in an unnatural way.

With Castillo on the roof, Aldaz made the cuts at the base. The anchor pine bowed – and held. The fallen tree made an unnatural creaking noise just before it broke cleanly in two, the freed portion rising slightly off the roof, enough to swing it out of danger.

Things went smoothly from there, and as his crew wrapped up, Everett got a phone call with the news that one of his guys had made it through to Jacksonville. This crew would stay in Raleigh overnight. Tuesday morning, they had plans to join another crew on a big job in Fayetteville, and then, if all went well, to plunge into the real wreckage of Florence. They were prepared to be on the road for two weeks.


Umberto Castillo dangles from a crane as he blows away the final debris from the roof of a Cary apartment complex after removing a fallen pine tree in the wake of Hurricane Florence on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Luke DeCock ldecock@newsobserver.com

That left Castillo still on the roof, using a leaf blower delivered to him via crane to dust off any lingering branches or needles. Later, searching for the right English word to describe how he felt up there, he accepted the suggestion of the Spanish simpatico — comfortable.

Finished, all traces of the tree removed, he tied himself to the ball of the crane to be lifted high into the air, silhouetted against the low clouds and late-day sun before he was returned gently to earth.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock