Mount Dora’s Brush with Big Wind leads to Fallen Trees

Cleanup on Donnelly and Tenth after a massive tree fell

July 13’s monster storm toppled laurel oaks across Mount Dora, raising fresh questions again about the city’s aging canopy 

Mount Dora’s dog days of July have been especially fierce this year, with temperatures soaring many afternoons into the upper 90s.

For days it had been sunny and meltingly hot, with little or only passing rain. Air conditioners have struggled to keep up with the assault, even long after dark.

Then sometime this week the weather changed—more disturbed, humid air in the mix—and storms started gathering. If you watched the skies in the later afternoon, clouds would seemingly fast-forward into clustering, blistering, towering storms.

One of those monsters brushed the south end of Mount Dora on July 12, blaring a fury of lighting and thunder but delivering little rain over the city.

The following morning, utility electric manager Charles Revell noticed the weather was “strange.” “The clouds looked funny all day,” he said. “When the weather gets unstable and it’s that hot (the high hit 97 degrees), you can expect big storms.”  Earlier that morning, four waterspouts had been spotted off Pensacola from a storm driving down into the state.

What raced through Mount Dora at 4 p.m. July 13 was sudden, violent, shocking and wild.

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Mount Dora resident Carol Mooney was driving on Donnelly, headed downtown to check up on the Village Coffee Pot where she is manager.

“You could tell it was just about to rain,” she says. “The wind started picking up and I could see all kinds of leaf and branch debris blowing into the street. I thought to myself, this is going to get rough.”

“Then all at once wind starts heaving mightily, lighting and thunder is everywhere and rain is coming down so hard and fast I had to slow down to a crawl.” Fortunately, no other cars were nearby.

“After I drove through the intersection at Eleventh I could see the stoplights waving like crazy in the rear-view mirror and I said, Oh no.”

She says she didn’t hear the tree crack, but when she looked back ahead, suddenly a huge mass of tree trunk and branches smashed down onto the hood of her truck.

Mooney couldn’t get out—the driver’s side door was jammed shut—and when Mount Dora police showed up soon after, they told her to not try the passenger door because power lines were down on that side.  Eventually the Fire Department freed her opening the drivers side door with the Jaws of Life.

“I don’t even want to think about what might have happened,” she said.

Cleanup on Tremain St.
Cleanup on Tremain St.

Although local forecasters said the storm wasn’t especially strong—winds were supposedly gusting  to 50 mph—it was an extremely effective one, knocking down trees and limbs from Overlook to Highland, Eleventh Avenue to Grantham Park. Five intersections were blocked.

Public Works director John Peters believes the storm churned into a microburst as it mowed through the city. (That’s when a powerful storm column forms but moves in a way opposite of a tornado.) Witnesses in one location say the saw the wind churning in a circular motion at one point.

He estimates that “seven or eight” trees were blown over, with many more losing limbs. Four vehicles were severely damaged, including Carole Mooney’s truck, and about 1,500 residents lost power. No injuries were reported. Initial damage estimates (covering cars, property and utilities) run to about $80,000.

Around the city’s north side, there were repeated scenes of fallen trees and debris laying across streets and along with downed power lines. Many of the trees were old and beloved, and to see their sudden naked brown insides where limbs had cracked off was startling. A large colony of bees erupted from a split limb of a tree on Grandview. The late afternoon—overcast but still—was plush with the sound of buzz saws, utility cranes and a hovering TV news helicopter.

Charles Revell says falling trees and limbs knocked out two of the six main electrical feeders coursing through town. His utility crews got immediately to work, restoring one of the feeders by 5 p.m. (and juice back to about 750) and then the second feeder around 6:30 p.m.

But then there were pockets of damage all over town, from lateral lines off the main feeders. For those 200 customers, power was restored by 9 p.m. “I’m real proud of our guys,” Revell said. “Not only our electric crew, but public works who helped us get out tree limbs of the way. Our police and fire departments worked so well with us, too.”

Revell says most of the trees which fell on Wednesday were laurel oaks. “Mount Dora has lots of trees, ” he says. “Unfortunately, many are laurel oaks put in 20-30 years ago because they grow so fast. They have a much shorter lifespan than live oaks, and though they look healthy they often grow hollow inside.”

“If you have a whole lot of rain, there’s more weight in the canopy, which also weakens the root system, Revell says. “The tree is already top-heavy, so when there’s wind, limbs go down or the entire tree.”

Tree limbs didn’t finish falling with the storm, Revell added. “The next day when it got light, we rode the circuit looking for ones ready to come down.”

Laurel oaks are the problem children of the oak family. They don’t heal well when damaged (for example, when they lose limbs in a storm) and so continue to rot out from within. (Some folks call the “water oaks” because they fill up with water when they get cavities.) Live oaks, on the other hand, live twice as long and when damaged grow a wall around the affected area so the damage doesn’t creep further in.

This isn’t the first time that a falling laurel oak has threatened harm to people. Last year a hollowed-out laurel collapsed onto Highland Avenue, right into the path of a southbound car. Like Carole Moody, that driver was lucky. One second later and the tree would have collapsed onto its roof.

Carole Mooney's pickup truck (left) after tree fell on it; the accident was similar to an event last summer on Highland when a laurel oak collapsed. (photos by Marie Rich and Chris Otremba)
Carol Mooney’s pickup truck (left) after tree fell on it; the accident was similar to an event last summer on Highland when a laurel oak collapsed. (photos by Marie Rich and Chris Otremba)

Bad storms are common both in the summer and winter in Mount Doras—from thunderstorms and hurricanes and the tail end of cold fronts whipping across Tornado Alley, a 20-mile-wide swath which crosses the state from Tampa and Daytona Beach. There was the Great Storm of 1993, actually a hornet’s nest of tornadoes which roared in from Lake Dora to cut through the middle of town, damaging or destroying 2,000 of the city’s trees (including some of its oldest oaks) and cutting power for days. In 2004, Hurricane Charley at one point was supposed to track directly over Mount Dora but it veered east, talking out 20,000 trees in Orlando and Winter Park. Thunderstorms in May, June and July of 2015 knocked down trees, power, even the Welcome To Mount Dora! sign on 441. As Mount Dora heats up in response to climate change, storms will only become more intense.

While out taking pictures on Wednesday afternoon, I ran into John Peters where he was parked on Eighth Avenue where a large limb had fallen in front of a house. A black power line formed a stark V where the limb took it down. You couldn’t see much of the house for all of the limb in the way.

Peters gave me a quick update and then, after watching a yellow front-loader maneuver into the limb, he said, “We have got to do something more to protect the safety of residents.”

* * *

Since the clamor last year over the removal of oak trees downtown during the streetscape project, the city has started taking steps toward a more comprehensive tree care program. Then-city manager Vincent Pastue first earmarked an additional $15,000 to the tree maintenance budget; in September he added another $50,000 for inventory of the existing canopy and laying the groundwork for a more involved process.

When the new council on board in December, there was decided push to move decision-making away from staff toward citizen boards. New council member Laurie Tillett said a new citizen tree board should oversee the “regreening” of downtown (apparently replacing palms that had been planted during streetscaping). She moved that committee qualifications and a charter be approved by the next council meeting. However, no one else thought this was feasible or even desirable since the new tree ordinance hadn’t even been written, much less approved by council. The committee was back-burnered as council turned its attention to replacing the city manager, planning manager and city attorney.

During the spring, a citizen group called Mount Dora Strong drafted a “Canopy Tree Preservation and Protection” ordinance. In June, Charlie Sanz submitted it to the city’s planning department. Said  interim planning manager Vince Sandersfeld in an email, “At this stage staff is reviewing the merits and will formulate the appropriate review process and communication with City Council and applicable Board, if so determined.  More information will be following this summer.”

According to city officials, there are no current plans by council to take up the ordinance.

Recently, the state awarded Mount Dora a $30,000 Florida Urban and Community Forestry Grant. Former city manager Pastue submitted the application last fall to help with the development of the tree program.

John Peters would like to tap some of that grant money for an extensive inventory of trees owned by the city (on public right-of-way and public land).  He plans to ask council for approval to proceed with putting out a request for quote for the service.

Is it wise to spend the money on the inventory now, even before the passage of the ordinance? Peters thinks so. After the July 13 storm, concerns about the condition of the city’s tree canopy have been heightened.

There is another compelling reason for the inventory. “In order to put together a proper tree ordinance, you have to have a good inventory,” he says. “The inventory will give us a full reading about tree health as well as how well-located they are.

He put it this way. “What if for example we have 650 oaks, 60 percent of them are laurels, and 50 percent are in tight, 5′ planting areas or are up next to power lines or a structure. We obviously then need to do something about all the the laurels, and the ordinance should have a heavy emphasis on safety.”

“On the other hand, say the inventory says we have 80 percent live oaks with more than 10 feet around them, with most away from power lines or buildings. Then the ordinance can emphasize preservation.”

Chris Parsons in front of his home on Eighth Avenue
Chris Parsons in front of his home on Eighth Avenue

As it stands now, the proposed ordinance places most of its emphasis on tree preservation, less on safety and biodiversity. It also focuses primarily on canopy trees—trees which grow to 30 feet. It is not a tree maintenance ordinance, but a canopy preservation ordinance. The committee would final authority in deciding which trees get removed, and would have far greater say over what residents do with trees on their private property.

Cost is something to factor in. The proposed ordinance is based on models taken from Winter Park, whose urban forest program carries a $1 million annual budget. One of its goals is to promote an overhanging canopy on the city’s main streets—a pretty goal, but there would need to be significant road infrastructure work to accommodate the conditions for such trees to grow well.

Urban forest programs typically have one primary goal—to care for existing trees while promoting biodiversity. Aesthetics obviously plays a part, since green space inherently project a healthy vibe. But the goals of preservation may conflict with the need to prune the sickly in order to promote a more verdant whole.

Charles Revel also supports the idea of a tree inventory. “Wednesday’s storm cleared out some of the weak trees, but a relatively small area was affected,” he says. “We just don’t know home many more are ready to come down.” A trained arborist would be able to help determine how many healthy-looking laurel trees are actually rotting out.

Aside from the threat of falling, trees also grow up from the parkway into the lines, which “creates all sorts of hazards,” Revell says. To minimize that problem, the electric utility department has an aggressive tree-trimming program, using a contract tree trimmer.

Revell acknowledges that the results are not always pretty, but many trees in parkways are canopy trees growing straight up into the wires.

“Aesthetics are one thing, but I have to look out for safety,” Revell says. If a tree touches a power line, it can start a fire.

What about switching to underground electrical cable? While there are benefits, Revell says, the cost building such infrastructure is expensive as hell (he estimated “$30 to $40 million” for a city of Mount Dora’s size). Furthermore, underground cable creates its own problems.  Tree roots can be devastating, and when there’s something wrong, it takes much longer to find it in an underground cable.

Like Mount Dora’s juice and its charm—its power lines and tree canopy—run side by side down every street. it is for the most part an old and comfortable marriage. But the skies are fickle and trouble is never further away than the next big storm.

Cleanup on Seventh Ave.
Cleanup on Seventh Ave.

On Friday, Donna Shelley was waiting for the tree removal company to finish clearing out the 55-foot limb which had fallen from a neighbor’s tree into the yard of her house on Seventh Avenue.

Luckily, it missed her house—a good thing—but then because it missed the house, cleanup wasn’t covered by insurance.

Besides getting her front yard back to normal, Shelley was hoping that once all the limbs and debris were removed, the statue in her front yard of a golden retriever still be there—and in one piece.

Shelley was living in that house back when the Great Storm of 1993 roared through. She came back from her then-boyfriend’s house in Winter Park to find two oak trees fallen across either end of her street. During the city’s cleanup from that storm, an arborist recommended replacing the fallen trees with laurel oaks. “He goofed up, I think he meant live oaks,” she says.

Shelley has a laurel oak which is getting older.  A tree care expert said that it has a few years of good life back, but eventually it should be replaced. She’s thinking of a smaller magnolia or a new species of live oak she’s heard about which doesn’t grow so tall. Shade from the tree helps to keep her house cool.

She also remembers the hurricanes which passed through Mount Dora in 2004. “You could feel the wind heaving through those trees,” she says. “I was sure something was going to fall on my house.”

Everything held, but as the canopy has continued to age on her block there have been more casualties. A huge laurel oak belonging to a neighbor a few doors down collapsed one day.

She says that while she loves the old trees in town, she hopes the city’s as-yet-approved tree ordinance will have some teeth when it comes to keeping neighborhoods safe.

She did get one bit of good news at the end. When the massive limb had been chain-sawed into sections and finally lifted away, there was the golden retriever sculpture, still at attention, warily regarding the ever-changing sky.

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David Cohea, Writer (