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Wet soil, wind are damaging trees in southern Minnesota

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Jesse Astorino works to take down a tree damaged in a recent storm
Jesse Astorino works with his crew Tuesday to take down a tree damaged in a recent storm that brought heavy rain and high winds to Rochester, Minn.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Tree removal companies in southern Minnesota are hustling to keep up with a high volume of work as a series of heavy rain and high windstorms have torn through the region. 

"Seems like every job we do is related to storm damage," said Jesse Astorino, as he prepared to cut down yet another storm damaged tree in northwest Rochester. 

Like others in the tree trimming business here, Astorino said he's had to juggle emergency situations with regular business, such as trimming and stump grinding. He's had to push back some of his regularly scheduled work. 

"It's been pretty unusual. It's a high number right now," he said. "Normally we have one good storm a year where we are pretty busy. But this year seems to have done a lot of damage."

Astorino said taking down all these damaged trees will likely translate to a higher-than-usual profit for his business. But it comes with some hassles, too, like dealing with insurance companies when homeowners file claims.

Other tree trimmers in the area say wet soil has made it difficult to get heavy equipment in and out of affected areas, which also has made it difficult to keep up with demand for their services. 

Southeast Minnesota isn't the only place dealing with a rash of downed trees.

In Fargo, N.D., 81 mph winds toppled trees over the weekend. 

Jesse Astorino works to take down a tree damaged in a recent storm
Jesse Astorino said work from taking down storm damaged trees is higher than usual this year, but it comes with some additional hassle.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Fargo city forester Scott Liudahl said he's been on the job for 23 years and can only remember one other time when they were so busy removing fallen trees and debris.

"We have wind events every year. Forty, 50 mph is not a big deal. We can manage that," Liudahl said. "We haven't had one this intense since the early 2000s."

Liudahl said his office won't know exactly how many trees fell or how much the storm has cost the city for a few more weeks. He said his team has removed trees blocking roads and sidewalks and is focusing now on broken branches and debris. 

Liudahl said he has some advice for residents, too.

"Go inspect your street trees, go inspect your property trees," he said. "Look for things that are of concern and just let us know."

Gary Johnson, forestry professor with the University of Minnesota, said physics is partly to blame for all those downed trees. 

"As soon as you add water to soil, you decrease friction — and that's what keeps trees vertical. The roots are literally gripping the soil, and giving the tree stability," Johnson said.

The National Weather Service calls this year the third wettest on record in Minnesota, and the soil in some parts of the state, particularly southeast Minnesota, is deeply saturated. 

Johnson also said that high winds, which many of these heavy rain storms have brought, make healthy trees more vulnerable to falling. So does human activities, like road or building construction.

He added basic tree maintenance can prevent many from sustaining damage in big weather events. Johnson recommends having trees inspected and trimmed routinely.