Mario Garcia sweated it out for 10 days with no power at his Coral Gables home. To escape the oven inside, he often sat in a lawn chair outside by his driveway. But from that vantage point he had to stare at the behemoth blanketing his front yard — a 40-foot ficus tree that toppled over when Hurricane Irma blew past Miami.
Ficus benjamina is a fantastical, jungly, dreadlocked tree when upright. But when its shallow roots rip free and its thick canopy crash-lands on streets and houses, it becomes the scourge of hurricane season. Garcia had a love-hate relationship with the ficus at the corner of Riviera Drive and Cadima Avenue that provided so much shade yet caused so much dread.
“I’ve been calling about that tree for three years, asking the city to trim it back, but they never got around to it,” Garcia said. “It was so obvious it was top heavy. We worried that it would crush our house — and it came very close.”
Garcia’s emotions mirror those of many South Florida residents whose lush neighborhoods were scraped bare by Irma’s lashing winds. They are sad at the loss of beautiful trees and angry at their cities and Florida Power & Light for not preventing the damage. Fallen trees might still be standing if only they had been pruned properly and proactively.
Residents, cities and FPL are tossing blame around like it’s a hot power line.
City leaders are blaming — and threatening to sue — FPL for an inadequate vegetation clearing schedule. FPL is blaming cities for not adhering to its guidelines for planting “the right tree in the right place.” Taxpayers are criticizing the utility, their municipal public works departments and their own neighbors for not being diligent when it comes to tree maintenance.
Thousands of trees came down when Irma’s 70-80 mph winds buffeted the area on Sept. 10, causing agonizing power outages in 75 percent of Miami-Dade County. Cleanup of debris — 1 million cubic yards in the city of Miami alone — is estimated to take up to two months.
“Have we learned nothing from Andrew? Didn’t anyone get the playbook after Wilma?” said Gary Pastorella of Palmetto Bay. “We used to see those orange Asplundh bucket trucks regularly. Now it’s a rarity, and the evidence is the mess behind my house.”
It’s gotten downright ugly in hard-hit Coral Gables, a proud Tree City for 33 years. Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli called FPL “pathetic,” and by Wednesday the city had levied $64,500 in fines against FPL for failing to meet its deadline of restoring power to the county by Sunday.
FPL issued an unusually stinging statement in return: “We will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame for the city’s irresponsibly managed tree program. The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system. Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price … for trees apparently planted by the city in dangerous locations far too close to power lines.”
A class-action lawsuit filed against FPL on Monday claims that the nation’s third-largest utility has been charging customers a storm fee since 2005 without using those funds as promised to protect lines and transformers.
“What happened here was not a snowstorm. It was a wind and rain event, which is typical in South Florida,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Gonzalo Dorta. “This is a monopoly that agreed to provide services in South Florida where these events are foreseeable.”
Jorge Zaldivar Jr., a Gables resident and owner of the Guavonia Farm in the Redland, said testy reactions are understandable.
“For tree aficionados, it’s heartbreaking to see what’s been swept away, to feel too much sun suddenly hitting you in the face,” said Zaldivar, whose family was relieved that their Haden mango survived. “But we have to keep the canopy under control.”
While residents complain that tree trimming has become a low priority and phone calls often go ignored, municipalities and FPL insist they have not gotten lax on their tree maintenance programs.
Ernesto Santos of Coral Gables disputes that: “I haven’t seen anyone trimming our trees in years. They’ve planted new trees but neglected their existing trees.”
Coral Gables dispatches five or six crews to trim about 6,000 of the city’s 38,000 trees per year, found in swales, parks, city golf courses. Before Irma hit, they had trimmed 2,950 trees in 2017. Different trees have different frequencies: Some palms get trimmed twice a year; for banyans, it’s every 12-24 months; while oaks, mahoganies and black olives get trimmed every 3-5 years.
The city also embarked on a tree-succession project two years ago, which entailed removing 964 problematic trees — including 75 ficus trees — and planting 2,806 new ones, mainly oaks and mahoganies.
“We get a lot of grief from people for removing the ficus trees, but they are vulnerable to catastrophic failure and also susceptible to trunk rot,” said Brook Dannemiller, the city’s landscape services director. “A lot of complaints are cosmetic — about falling berries and brown staining —and people get upset when we explain how we prioritize.
“Some people want the top chopped off, but if a tree is trimmed properly, it won’t look dramatic. We won’t remove more than 25 percent of the canopy. We value our canopy and want it to remain strong and healthy.”
As for downed power lines, most were caused by trees on private property and many were large fruit trees, said Ed Santamaria, director of public works.
“FPL has the authority to enter that easement, but that doesn’t mean residents always welcome them or allow them to do the job thoroughly,” Santamaria said, pointing out that FPL and communications companies only trim around their own lines. “If you want to hide your lines, it’s going to take longer to restore power.”
The city is complying with FPL guidelines on new plantings but “a lot of our trees are 90 years old and predate the power lines,” Dannemiller said.
Coral Gables sustained about 75 percent of the damage it sustained during Wilma in 2005, when the city collected 200,000 cubic yards of debris, Santamaria said.
In Miami, three crews of tree trimmers cover 12 grids in 12 months, starting in the north in January and finishing in Coconut Grove in December.
“We take a responsible, proactive approach,” said Juvenal Santana, director of public works. “Unfortunately some people don’t want trees trimmed and then they are the same ones who say not enough trimming was done.”
Although it’s too early for an accurate count, the city lost more than 1,000 major trees, he said.
FPL’s vegetation management program stipulates that its 15,000 miles of main lines in the state are cleared at least once every three years and its lateral or neighborhood lines are cleared at least once every six years, spokesman Bud Fraga said.
“Our biggest campaign is to plant the right tree in the appropriate place,” he said.
Pinecrest has followed FPL’s guidelines but the village questions whether FPL followed its maintenance schedule and has requested a review of it, said Mayor Joe Corradino.
“We’re interested in moving forward so this doesn’t happen again,” said Corradino. Seventy percent of Pinecrest had no electricity for a week after Irma. “We need to find a way for lines and trees to coexist.”
Pinecrest and Coral Gables want to revisit the idea of burying lines underground, an investment that could cost upwards of $1 million per mile, Corradino said.
In Palmetto Bay, “we know of no tree that we planted that pulled down a power line,” Mayor Eugene Flinn said. “We are a Tree City, which we’re very proud of, and we’re not going to outlaw residents’ existing trees but we may consider mandating that any of their replacement trees cannot interfere with a power line.”
While the ficus benjamina was the No. 1 culprit and victim of Irma (Indian almonds and flowering trees didn’t do well, either), oaks and mahoganies were sturdy. Nevertheless, damage was severe and widespread.
“Andrew was quick, but Irma stuck around all day long and a lot of trees gave up because they got weak and wet,” Flinn said.
And, noted Corradino, the lack of a major storm in 12 years contributed to the tree density.
In the Gables, Garcia was still disoriented by the blank space where the ficus once reached into the sky.
“It looks completely different around here,” he said. “We’re numb.”