We’re only 3 blocks west of a mandatory evacuation zone, exempted only because the elevation here is slightly higher than much of coastal florida. I do mean slight, I think the foundation of our concrete house is only ten feet above sea level. By friday evening, as Hurricane Frances approached, our little community was shuttered up, battened down, and the hurricane parties were organizing. Even the tree frogs and land crabs were coming in out of the rain.

Frog Crab

The eye of Frances meandered past, about 30 miles north of us, all saturday and sunday. Frances brought a lot of rain, further softening the already saturated ground. Rooted in mud and quicksand, the trees suffered a full day of sustained winds from an unusual direction, the west. The east coast of Florida is rarely exposed to heavy west winds. The conditions were ideal for prying loose trees and utility poles. Saturday afternoon my son and I stood in the protection of our front entry and watched the trees flaying themselves in the wind. Fifteen feet from the door, in our yard, stands a huge Weeping Chinese Banyan (Ficus Benjamina) tree, one big enough to shade half a city block. We could see its trunk, at least three feet in diameter, lean a few degrees to the east on the big gusts, then ease back to vertical in the relative calm. Even with the evidence in front of us, we didn’t think it would come down. In the early hours Sunday morning we heard and felt the thump, right through the floor. Incredibly it fell only on streets, lawns, and sidewalks.

We lost power early saturday evening, a common occurence in this 1960’s neighborhood, with a lot of elderly utility gear. The only apparent damage to the power lines was a pole that had leaned far east in the night. The lines were stretched hard from its companion poles to the north and south, but still intact. The pole was easily 20 degrees off vertical, and the lines to the houses east of it draped almost to the ground.

By sunday afternoon many of us were out poking through the debris. In the aftermath of a storm, city streets, covered with loose leaves, branches, and the occasional horizontal tree, are surreal. Even the light has a strange quality, and the people, exhausted from days of hustling shutters and stocking for shortages, are pie-eyed, soaked, shell-shocked and bedraggled.

ficus ficus ficus ficus

My ficus had fallen parallel to the street, and covered most of the street, but conveniently left a 10 foot lane of asphalt between it and my neighbor Gene’s lawn. Sadly, the drunken sightseers were already coming through in their SUVs and pickups. Most of these bozos, playing out some fantasy of careening through the wilderness, elected to carve big chunks through Gene’s lawn, instead of easing past the tree on the road. Of course the ground was so sodden that Gene now has incredibly deep, wide ruts crossing his lawn, and a few sprinkler lines have been crushed. It’s strange, the storm brought out a lot of good in people, but when there are obstructions in the road, a lot of drivers see an opportunity for an off-road experience, ramming over lawns and shrubbery, thinking the wanton destruction is completely justified.

After a few SUVs completely creamed Gene’s lawn and small palms, some outraged neighbors show up with chain saws and start trimming the fallen tree back, and piling the brush in the ruts, so that even the Hummeroid down the street would have no excuse for going off-road.

By wednesday, a lot of horizontal trees have been converted to giant brush piles, and it looks like every truck the sanitation dept can lay hands on is working 16 hours a day, collecting brush and debris.They filled two trucks from my swale, then I immediately went out and piled up another truckload. All the easy branches have been taken off the ficus. It’s looking very silly with its three giant fingers still in the air.

Ficus Benjamina, also known as Weeping Fig, and Weeping Chinese Banyan, are not native to Florida, though they’re a close relative of our native Strangler Figs. The Ficus Benjamina are considered exotic pests, that is, they’re a foreign species that tends to displace and destroy native flora and fauna. Not so evil as kudzu or australian pine, they’re constantly planted by developers and impatient homeowners since they’re so tough and fast growing. I’d assumed that my neighbors would be glad to see this tree gone. But, I received many condolences and expressions of goodwill towards the tree. Its deep shade was a welcome respite for the pedestrians. Many were sad to see it gone and asked us to try to save it either by ‘righting it’, or encouraging it to regrow from the fallen stump. Ficus don’t need any encouragement, you could probably rip one out of the ground whole, dip it in the atlantic once or twice, and set it upside down on a rock, and it would regrow. Since the tree had picked up 10 feet of sidewalk with its root ball, I didn’t think I could just leave it to regrow, but my son and I liked the idea of artfully trimming it in place, enough to drop the sidewalks back down, and clear the walks, then encouraging new growth and fresh lateral roots. Cooler, saner heads in our household are not impressed with this idea.

Still no power in the neighborhood. Calling FPL gets you an amusing set of phone messages, telling you they hope to have a ‘plan’ in place in another week. I’ve hacked together power supplies for the DSL modem from the car battery, so even with no power we still have connectivity for the laptops. Starting to hear more grumbling from the locals. The silence is incredible, without all the compressors and pool pumps rumbling in the town, the sounds of local beasties and remote autos dominate.

Thursday, we’re still pruning and digging up stumps in my neighborhood, a backhoe down the street nails the phone lines for the block, and now we’ve lost our DSL. We were fine without cable TV, being without electricity was annoying, but now we’re in real trouble!

FPL lineman’s trucks cruise the neighborhood, huge diesel powered ‘Pied Pipers’, gathering a parade of sweaty power-crazed locals behind them. Every now and again, someone breaks off from the procession to report back. “Nope, they never get out of the trucks, just stop and gaze at power poles now and again”

Every day we put a few more bags of ice in the fridge and toss out more decaying food. The heat is intense during the day, but luckily we’re doing a project down in Lauderdale, decorating a house that still has power. We stagger home at night to our hot and soggy house and try to sleep.

Saturday afternoon, rumors are flying around the block about some linemen actually working on the poles. An FPL truck rumbles by. My neighbor, Mark is following it on a bicycle, he pauses to report, “They’re working on the lines to the east, I’ll try to get them back here.” And near dusk, by hook or crook, he’s persuaded a line chief to have a look at our block’s power issues.

Many of us have walked the lines for our little corner, we’re convinced that the only problem with the lines is that pole just east of my house, it’s rotted at the base and only the lines running north and south are holding it up. The lineman agrees, and seems amenable to our suplications.

He eyeballs the leaning pole, turns round and studies the pile of ficus logs sitting on my swale, scans on to the ficus stump, still waving a few branches at the sky, dead west of the leaning power pole. He ruminates for a minute, looks at the pile of fresh cut logs again, the pole, the ficus stump. Walks ‘round the stump, checks to see if it’s still in the ground. Yep, horizontal, but still holding on. “Is this your tree?”

“Surely is”, I reply.

“Are you gonna take it out soon?”

“I’d be proud to leave that tree in the ground as long as you’d like.”

“Mind if we use some of those logs?”

“Take all you want. If you need something longer, I’ll cut you a fresh piece.”

“Nope, these’ll be fine.”

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So, along comes the crew, the bucket truck, the huge coil of rope. They select a nice log from my pile and drive it in next to the shattered base of the listing power pole. After lashing the base of the pole and my log together, they run the bucket truck to the top of the pole and tie off a fat nylon cable. The other end of the cable is run across the street, across my yard and into the ficus stump. All heave on the lines, the bucket pulls back, and lo, the pole is vertical again. They tied off to the ficus, warned me once again not to cut it down while it was holding up the pole, and headed up the street to reset the breakers.

ficus ficus

While this is going on, all the locals have been drifting into the streets to cheer on our brave boys in white. Since it’s starting to look like a block party, I head back into the house to see what I can do to encourage it. I find some melting frozen orange juice, and half a liter of rum. Tossing it into a pitcher I grabbed a stack of paper cups in the other hand and headed back out. Cheering on the FPL team was a welcome distraction.

The houses around us light up, we hear 15 air conditioners cycle on at once, The streetlights are flickering up… We’re back it the 21st century!

A day or two later, FPL planted a new pole next to the broken one, and unhitched it from the Ficus stump.

This tree has already gained mythic stature. Teenagers and adults cruise past, peering at the stump and the vertical slab of sidewalk leaning on it. “Wow! Too Cool!”, “Is that the tree that held up the power pole?”, “I’ll miss that tree, can you save it?”, “Did the log on the power pole come from the tree?” Even crushed and fallen, it had one last service to offer its community, helping to restore power to the same folks that had enjoyed its dense shade.

This was not some ancient historical tree. The ficus was probably only 20 years old. In the early 90’s, it was just a bush next to the driveway. One wet summer it didn’t get trimmed. That fall it was a tree next to the driveway. Only a year or two later it was a BIG tree next to the driveway. A year after that it was shading half a block. We started trimming it all the time trying to keep it thinned out and off the house.

Many neighbors lost smaller trees. There were very few injuries and little property damage here in southern Palm Beach County. Until Jeanne the southeast coast of Florida had been lucky, compared to the islands and the gulf states this year. But now the counties north of us have been devastated, though they are still far better off than many areas, especially the islands to the east and south.