When the ice began to melt after the Feb. 14-15 ice storm, George Hazard did what a lot of homeowners were doing.
“I walked around the house to see if there was any damage,” said Hazard, who lives on College Street in Columbus.
It appeared as though Hazard’s property had escaped any real damage until he arrived at the east end, where he noticed two trees — both about 30 feet tall — between his and a neighbor’s house.
“I noticed that some of the bigger branches had split off and were hanging over the fence into my neighbor’s driveway.”
After his inspection, Hazard called Billy Houlk, owner of Houlk Tree Services in West Point.
Hazard wasn’t the only one to call on Houlk, a professional arborist who has been in the tree service business for 36 years.
“We knew we’d be busy after the storm,” Houlk said. “That happens every time we have a storm. Most of the time it’s when we have tornadoes or straight-line winds. But any time there’s an ice storm, we know we’re going to get calls.”
Throughout the week, tree services have rivaled plumbers when it comes to demands on their labor.
“A lot of the calls are from people who want us to come out and do an assessment,” Houlk said. “They want us to come out and take a look to see if the tree needs to be cut down or if it can be saved. I offer my opinion, but it’s the homeowner who makes the decision.”
Houlk said he takes several factors into account when deciding whether a tree can be saved.
“There’s no way to be 100-percent accurate about whether a tree can survive or not after it’s had some major damage,” Houlk said. “What I do is look at the tree and see if it has any decay or rot or disease. If it’s a healthy tree and the damage isn’t too widespread, it can usually be saved. What I do is tell people what I would do if it was my tree.”
John Kushla, a research professor with the Mississippi State Extension Service who specializes in trees, said he too is regularly called to inspect storm-damaged trees by property owners.
“We’re happy to do it,” Kushla said. “It’s part of our service.”
One of the first things Houlk and Kushla look for when assessing a storm-damaged tree is the extent of the damage.
“The rule of thumb is to look at the damage in relation to the tree’s canopy,” Kushla said. “If the damage is more than 20 percent of the tree’s canopy, it’s not likely to survive. That’s not an absolute, of course. But that’s where you start.”
Houlk said that in addition to the damage, he also looks at the structure of the tree for weaknesses.
“If you have splits in a tree where water can collect, that’s a potential problem,” he said. “When water collects in a tree, the ice expands and contracts and makes the tree vulnerable.”
Another factor that determines a tree’s ability to survive an ice storm is weather conditions that precede the storm.
“When you have ice storms after a fall drought, it makes a lot of trees more susceptible to damage,” Kushla said. “So I always recommend that if possible, when there’s a drought, people should deep soak the root system with the garden house, usually for about three or four hours at least once a week.”
Houlk noted that some kinds of trees are particularly vulnerable to ice storms.
“I’d say Bradford Pears are just about the worst,” Hulk said. “The wood is brittle and when limbs are ice over, they just can’t bear the weight of the ice.”
Both Houlk and Kushla said homeowners can do their own pruning for small trees, but recommend a professional for damage to larger trees, which also is recommended by the Arbor Tree Foundation.
“An arborist is going to know what to do and, more importantly, how to do it safely,” Kushla said.
Houlk said there are two common errors homeowners generally make.
“It’s not knowing what to cut but how to cut it,” Houlk said. “There’s about a two-inch neck where the cut needs to be made so the tree can recover. A lot of times people just cut it wherever it’s easiest to get to. That’s a mistake. It hurts the health of the tree.”
The other mistake, Houlk said, is that property owners sometimes forget a basic law of physics.
“The way people get hurt most often is when they are working with a ladder,” Houlk said. “They have a 15-foot ladder and they think, ‘Well I can reach the limb so I can do it myself.’ So they put the latter under the limb they want to cut and cut it from the top. What happens? The tree folds over and hits the ladder because that’s what would naturally happen. But somehow, people just think the limb is going to fall straight down. It never does.”
On Wednesday, Houlk and his son, Will, arrived to take a look at Hazard’s trees.
“They recommended taking them down,” Hazard said.
Within a few hours, with the use of a bucket truck, ropes and several chainsaws, the Houlks had topped the tree, cut it into sections and lifted the trunk vertically from its base to avoid damage to the privacy fence that bordered Hazard’s property.
“If you have the equipment, taking trees out this isn’t too hard,” Houlk said. “When you’ve been doing this 36 years like I have, you know what to do.”