Hurricane Michael came at a really bad time for Lee Gainous. His Cairo, Ga. nursery, Gainous’ Shade Trees, Inc., typically does 70-80 percent of its business in September, October and November. The 40-acre nursery starts its trees as bareroot seedlings in five and seven-gallon containers and sells them to wholesale nurseries in 12 states throughout the Southeast that grow them to landscape size.
“All my trees are ready right now to be delivered and I’ve got the majority of them sold and booked,” he said. “I’ve got the best crop I've ever had and then I get a hurricane, you know?"
On the morning of Thursday, Oct. 11, Gainous arrived to check the damage.
“We had to cut our way into the nursery,” he said.
After the roads were cleared and the employees started to trickle in, the first order of business was picking up the 300,000 trees and watering them.
“For the first three days, all we were worried about was getting trees stood up so we could water them,” he said.
As of Oct. 16, Gainous and many of his employees still didn't have power at their homes. Because of the continuing power outage and the resulting school closures, many of his employees brought their whole families to work with them. There was certainly plenty of work to do, and everyone pitched in.
“I mean everybody,” he says. “We had our immediate families, kids, cousins, aunts, uncles. We had everybody picking up plants.”
The crew worked long days Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Gainous had taken precautions in the form of many, many hamburger patties and hot dogs. He brought his grill to the nursery and fed his employees and their families for four days. In the week leading up to the hurricane, Gainous talked to his friend Todd Ellefson of Windmill Nursery about what to expect. Windmill Nursery is located in Franklinton, La. and has weathered this type of storm in the past.
“I had heard all these horror stories from Katrina and some of the Florida hurricanes and all, about not being able to take care of their employees at the nursery, and so we had made preparations,” he said.
Gainous thought he was prepared, with a PTO pump and two generators, one to run the office, including a restroom, and one to run a well. But he might have been sunk if another nursery friend from The Holly Factory in Alachua, Fla. hadn’t reached out and offered his big three-phase generator – a self-sustained unit on wheels. Gainous sent a truck driver straight down to Alachua to pick it up.
“If we hadn't got that generator from them some of our plants wouldn't have got watered, we wouldn't have been able to get enough water on our plant material,” he said. “So we were able to get another big generator to run a big well and that saved us.”
The nursery’s damage extended further than just containers in disarray. Two shade houses with elevated sprinkler heads were blown over, hooking the overhead irrigation and snatching the sprinklers right out of the ground. Gainous also has spray jet irrigation on more than half his trees. Of course, they were also blown over. He also lost four barns due to the 80 to 90 mph winds. The equipment in the barns, including 10 tractors, was all fine.
“Any barn that was enclosed; it just took it away,” he said. “It just picked the barn up and the tractors were still sitting there.”
Several barns were open and the wind passed through them. A few trees near the office came down on the edge of the office. Helpers with chainsaws joined Gainous and his son, who were using a front-end loader to make the facility workable again. Plant damage from the hurricane was minimal, with a few broken branches here and there, and the magnolias receiving the worst of it.
On Saturday night, Oct. 13, a 10-man Electric Membership Cooperative crew from Kentucky arrived with their bucket trucks and restored power to the nursery. It was a welcome change, because Gainous had been running the business' computers off the generator so he could send that Friday's payroll.
The employees of Gainous' Shade Trees have had it rough, but some nicely-cooked pork shoulder always makes things better.
“I put some Boston Butts on the grill Saturday night and had them for Sunday,” Gainous said. “We came in at 7 a.m. on Sunday. I hate to work on a Sunday, but we worked until lunch. [At that point] we had everything stood up and we got everything watered twice and I just said, ‘Everybody quit.’ We all went home and just rested.”
The rest was needed, because the crew would be loading trucks Monday afternoon. Six semi loads were put on hold during the worst of the storm, but Gainous’ customers want their trees and the roads had been cleared.
“You never know how bad it is until you get one, and it’s terrible,” he said.
When Hurricane Michael hit U.S. shores on Oct. 10, it was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The storm smashed into the Florida Panhandle and barreled up through Georgia and into the Carolinas and Virginia. Greenhouses and nurseries in affected areas are dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane as best they can. To read more of their stories, click here. For an independent garden center perspective, click here.
Was your nursery affected by the hurricane? Do you have a story to tell? Call Matt McClellan at 216-393-0261 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Gainous Shade Trees