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One Year After the Derecho, Only A Small Fraction of Destroyed Trees Replaced

Kate Payne
New trees are cropping up across Cedar Rapids, like this one at Cleveland Park on the southwest side. But a year after the derecho, only a small fraction of trees lost in the storm have been replaced.

A year ago this month (on August 10, 2020), a powerful derecho swept across Iowa, decimating generations-old forests in a matter of minutes and downing millions of trees.

Some cities lost more than half of their tree canopy. One year later, only a small fraction has been replaced.

Take a look outside. How many trees do you see? Now imagine more than half of them have vanished. That’s the reality residents of Cedar Rapids are living with.

Sixty-five percent of the tree canopy in the city was wiped out by the derecho one year ago. Many there are still grieving the loss.

A loss of trees and a loss of wonder

"For me, it's the wonder. It's the years that have been built up into these trees. You know, they've seen so many things. And that's all gone," said Nick McGrath, community disaster recovery coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and local nonprofit Trees Forever.

Walking around Bever Park on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids with McGrath to survey the damage is eye-opening.

"There are so many more that have to come down yet," McGrath said, pointing out the spray-painted black X's that dot tree after tree, which he says marks them as likely to be removed. "So even with the loss, there's still more to go."

Credit Kate Payne
Cedar Rapids lost some 65 percent of its tree canopy in the derecho. While the impacts to the landscape has been profound, the culling isn't quite done yet: some dead and damaged trees still must be taken down.

He’s been hired to help communities across the state figure out best ways to replant. It’s a huge challenge; the derecho packed winds of up to 140 miles per hour, comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane, and came with almost no notice.

While Cedar Rapids has been able to hire a dedicated replanting coordinator, other hard-hit communities don’t have those resources. It's up to McGrath to try and fill in the gaps.

"We'll help all of them as much as we can," McGrath said. "Some of it is assisting with grant applications, doing the site maps, lining up volunteers to come out and do the work."

He helps cities decide where to replant and how, what he calls ‘right tree, right place’. And he helps them try to find state or private funding.

But there’s such a demand for new plantings, many communities are finding it more difficult and more expensive to get what they want.

"There are very few people that actually grow trees in Iowa. A lot of the folks will order stock in from other states," McGrath said.

For one tree farmer, much of 40 years of work was lost in 40 minutes

It will take decades to fully replace what was lost that day. Of course many of the century-old oaks that came down in the storm are simply irreplaceable.

Credit Kate Payne
Larry Wiley has been growing trees on the banks of the Cedar River near Palo for 40 years. He says much of his work was lost in 40 minutes when the derecho hit.

Larry Wiley has been growing trees on the banks of the Cedar River in eastern Iowa for 40 years. He says his woods will never be the same.

His 125 acres of oak, walnut, hickory and hackberry are still dotted with brush piles stacked high with shattered trees and storm debris. A year after the storm, some of the trails across his land are still blocked by fallen trees he hasn't had the chance to clear yet.

Wiley says that much of his 40 years of work was lost in just 40 minutes, as the storm toppled massive oaks and shattered maples.

"[The derecho] just broke them off in the middle and then trashed the whole log, you know?" Wiley said. "That's when I almost cry, because there was this beautiful log and it's just destroyed."

Nearly everywhere he looks, Wiley's woods have been overtaken by invasives like canary grass, which have thrived in the absence of his lost trees, crowding out desirable species.

He points to what had been a shady grove of mature maples and tiny seedlings.

"Before all this you could look out and there was like a carpet of little maple trees, little seedlings, 4 to 6 inches tall," Wiley said. "But now they're so covered up with weeds and stuff I don't know if any of them will survive."

Credit Kate Payne
Tree farmer Larry Wiley says his 125 acre woodland will never be the same. In the year since the derecho, invasives have thrived in the absence of mature trees, crowding out desirable species.

Apart from the emotional loss, some Iowans say they can physically feel the absence of the trees. Some say they’re paying hundreds of dollars more on their utility bills this summer because of the lack of shade.

Cedar Rapids officials have pledged to restore the tree canopy in a way they say will be more resilient and more equitable than before.

The city council has promised $1 million a year for the next 10 years to support the initiative, called ReLeaf Cedar Rapids.

City Parks and Recreation director Scott Hock acknowledges that some neighborhoods need more help than others.

"Some people have the means to be able to reestablish their canopy, some people don't," Hock said. "So we're working with our partners like Trees Forever, and to help find ways to get trees to those people as well."

With the help of neighborhood associations, climate activists and scout troops, new trees are already cropping up in parks, along sidewalks and in private yards. Some plantings are going in where there weren’t any before.

Credit Kate Payne
Local teenagers employed by Trees Forever's Growing Futures youth jobs program are among those helping care for new plantings across Cedar Rapids. City officials have pledged to restore the tree canopy in a way that's more resilient and more equitable than before.

On a recent morning, a group of teenagers were hard at work watering some young trees on the northwest side of town. They’re part of a Trees Forever youth jobs program called Growing Futures.

Elisa VonBehren says she likes being a part of restoring what was lost on Aug. 10.

"You can really tell how many have been lost since the derecho. That’s not a good thing," she said, "but we’re trying to help to bring it back."

ReLeaf manager Rachael Murtaugh says it’s inspiring to see residents step up to help, like at Cleveland Park on the southwest side.

"People have used that grief and that trauma of the storm to come together and replant and dedicate to rebuild and coming together as neighbors," Murtaugh said. It’s been really incredible to see people step up."

But a full year later, only a small fraction of Cedar Rapids’ trees have been replaced. Out of more than 650,000 trees that were destroyed, city officials have only replanted about 1,200. Trees Forever has planted about 15,000 statewide.