- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

Homeowners hoping to get trees trimmed or cut down before Hurricane Isabel hit yesterday found themselves out of luck.

Some tree service companies said they worked mainly on trees that posed an imminent threat to houses, but most said crews were either too busy cleaning up debris from previous storms or resting in anticipation of a busy cleanup schedule today.

Dozens of calls poured in to companies such as Trim-A-Limb in Silver Spring, where workers scrambled to complete jobs before rain and wind picked up yesterday afternoon.

“We’re getting everything from ‘please trim my tree’ to ‘cut my tree down immediately because I don’t want it to hit my house,’” said company co-owner Sandy Lutes.

Ms. Lutes said Trim-A-Limb was prioritizing jobs based on the level of concern for a homeowner’s safety. A tree poised to fall on a house would get attention, she said, and older people or those with disabilities might have had a better shot at getting help yesterday.

Nonetheless, previous customers were given priority, and virtually all jobs were to help clients who had called earlier in the week. Crews from some tree service businesses were busy helping workers from power companies Dominion and Pepco clear trees away from power lines. By early afternoon, most work had stopped because of the danger of operating chainsaws and other machinery in rain and wind.

“We’re not going to endanger our work force,” Ms. Lutes said.

The Washington area didn’t face the brunt of Isabel, which struck parts of North Carolina and Virginia with winds of more than 100 mph and heavy rains. But wind gusts in this area did reach 60 mph, strong enough to break heavy branches and topple older and more fragile trees.

Most companies said they have been swamped with work since the spring, when excessive rain triggered calls for the removal of uprooted trees and for landscaping work. Big thunderstorms in August added to the backlog of jobs.

“We’ve been averaging since the last storm as many calls in a day as we [normally] get in a week,” Ms. Lutes said. “And we were already behind because of the spring. It’s beyond brutal.”

Lynette Leighty, president of Vickers Tree Service in Laurel, laughed when asked how many calls she had got yesterday.

“The phone just rings off the hook,” she said. “I take one call and then look to see that I have two messages. I haven’t been able to get all these calls returned.”

Ms. Leighty said her company would be unable to help anyone who called for service less than a week ago.

Companies said they were afraid to even think of how many calls they’d have today. Ms. Leighty said her workers stopped doing jobs about noon yesterday and chose to rest in anticipation of a very busy day.

“We’re quite nervous about what’s going to happen,” she said. “The ground is so saturated we’re worried about trees uprooting.”

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