116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As city of Cedar Rapids officials began to understand the full scope of devastation wrought by the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho’s hurricane-force winds, it quickly became clear to City Manager Jeff Pomeranz that the city would need to move swiftly to revive the tree canopy lost in the unprecedented storm.
Cedar Rapids took a number of initial steps to clear debris making streets impassable and help utility companies to restore power. Staff also worked to meet the needs of residents who grappled with damaged homes and sought assistance with necessities such as finding meals and charging medical devices.
In every square mile of the city, fallen trees and limbs cluttered the streets — representing a loss of 669,000 trees, about two-thirds of Cedar Rapids’ canopy. And many of the remaining trees stood with jagged limbs, a sign of the ferocious winds they withstood as the storm battered Linn County.
“We didn’t realize the full magnitude that week in August, but we lost in our Cedar Rapids area 1 million trees,” Pomeranz said. “That was devastating and the impact became even more apparent as the days and weeks went by.”
Cedar Rapids, long designated as a Tree City USA, had been proud of its trees, Pomeranz said. Trees not only beautify a community, he said, but they are important for their environmental and health benefits, too.
“It’s truly something that is a benefit to our area, and we lost that benefit on that day,” Pomeranz said. Bringing the canopy back “would take a long time to do, but we needed to start somewhere.”
Since the derecho, not including private efforts, over 2,150 trees have been planted along rights of way, in parks and golf courses between city staff and volunteers.
Across Linn County, other cities say they’re are not taking the extensive approach to replanting that Cedar Rapids has taken since the storm, but they, too, have committed public money to replacing the tree canopy, are forming partnerships and seeking grants from government and companies — and, like Cedar Rapids, are facing years of replanting ahead.
ReLeaf aims to be ‘ideal urban forestry plan’
In Cedar Rapids, Pomeranz tapped into the expertise of Marion-based nonprofit Trees Forever with the help of founder Shannon Ramsay, forming the ReLeaf public-private partnership. The Cedar Rapids City Council made a commitment of providing $10 million toward replanting over the next decade.
The ReLeaf team brought on renowned city planner Jeff Speck — with the help of local landscape architecture firm Confluence — to craft a visionary urban reforestation plan that would guide an equitable long-term replanting effort. Speck had previously advised Cedar Rapids with planning and development issues including traffic, conversions from one- to two-way streets and changes to bike lanes downtown.
After about a year of drafting the plan and gathering public input, Cedar Rapids is preparing to unveil its ReLeaf plan in January.
The ReLeaf team set out to research how other communities faced similar disasters, but Pomeranz said the work Speck did turned out to be especially difficult because there was little precedent for an urban reforestation effort to this scale.
Certainly, other communities have lost thousands of trees from natural disasters: A hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas. A massive snowfall that blanketed the Canadian city of Calgary. Even Hurricane Katrina resulted in a loss of trees — about 100,000 trees in New Orleans, though millions more in forested areas along the Gulf Coast. But none had seen what Cedar Rapids saw.
“There was no community we could find that had the devastating loss of trees that Cedar Rapids had encountered,” Pomeranz said.
In drafting the ReLeaf plan, Speck said “we really felt like we had to rise to the occasion of responding to what we think was the biggest urban forestry disaster in U.S. history.”
“The model for urban forestry plans has by no means been perfected, and so we took this we took this job as a challenge to try to create the ideal urban forestry plan that's applicable in the face of a disaster, but also just applicable to any city that wants to apply best practices in growing their canopy,” Speck said.
Pomeranz said Speck is realistic in approach, conscious of principles such as equity and committed to smart growth and development done the right way — making him the perfect fit to shape this long-term effort.
With an estimated price tag of $37 million, the plan will detail where to plant over 42,000 trees on public land in a 10-year span and guide private landowners on the best types of native species to plant on their own properties.
Fundraising is still underway as the ReLeaf capital campaign committee looks to private contributions and federal dollars to fuel the effort. Pomeranz anticipates the plan’s release will inspire more offers of financial support.
“The future generations will be the losers if we don’t do something that’s well-thought out, well-funded and meets the needs of the long term,” Pomeranz said. “ … It’s truly about our community, and everyone needs to have ownership and be part of it.”
Communities and governments looking to replenish their own urban forest “need to take a lead and need to act” in the face of a disaster, Pomeranz said.
The first and most critical needs are caring for people and property — ensuring citizens are safe and starting the rebuilding process, Pomeranz said. But while tending to those immediate needs, he said Cedar Rapids also recognized the need to jumpstart replanting. Municipalities should start planning early, put a plan and budget together and then work to rally public support behind the effort.
“Community leaders have a choice when something occurs like a derecho to be so overwhelmed by the immediate issues that you lose track of what has to happen for the long term to bring the community back,” Pomeranz said. “That’s what ReLeaf Cedar Rapids is about: it’s about the long-term gain.”
Metro area replanting efforts
Although other Linn County communities are not taking the extensive steps that Cedar Rapids had taken, that does not mean they are not paying attention do it.
Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly said the Cedar Rapids ReLeaf effort is a “really impressive” project.
“Of course we take things away from it. They have the template now and cities, including Marion, could look at that and see if there’s elements of it that make sense that we could implement,” he said.
AbouAssaly added that he thinks every community has to do what they’re able to do, given their resources. “Every community has different abilities, but having that ReLeaf template created certainly presents the opportunity for conversation and collaboration,” he said.
Marion City Arborist Mike Cimprich said Speck has been doing a “fantastic job” with the project.
“It’s a guidance for us,” Cimprich said. “We have been taking every single consideration they are into our replant program. We’ve already been working here as it takes time to put that (ReLeaf) together, but we had also been waiting for Cedar Rapids to come out with it to see where they are.”
Because of the derecho, Marion lost around 42 percent of its public tree canopy. That’s 2,648 trees, Cimprich said. Cimprich said the city planted 1,550 trees in 2021 alone.
“That’s a huge number for us,” he said. “Our average annual planting before the derecho was 250 trees.”
The city put $29,000 toward replanting this fiscal year, and the city aims to increase that this upcoming budget season. Cimprich said staff has pursued various grants and will continue to do so.
“We’re also working with ITC (Midwest) on a large-dollar donation that will support these projects, and Friends of Oak Shade Cemetery has raised over $1,500 just for trees to go there,” he said.
Cimprich the city spent a lot of time working with the urban forestry and parks staff to approach the replanting efforts, including diversifying the tree canopy. And because stump removal wasn’t complete across the city, the team had to strategize and attempt to “maximize planting potential throughout the community.”
“We had to overlook some areas that were hit really hard where stumps were or are still in place this season, but we will for sure be back this next season,” he said.
As for Marion’s parks, Hanna Park on the southside of the city was devastated by the derecho. The park lost around 100 trees, which is equal to around 75 percent of the park’s tree canopy.
“Just on a visual level, you could see Hanna was the worst hit,” Cimprich said.
But this year, the city partnered with Trees Forever and replaced almost 90 trees already. “We’ve nearly replanted tree for tree already,” Cimprich said.
Though the city has accomplished a lot in the replanting effort this last year, there is still a long ways to go as it will take years to replace all that was lost in August 2020.
“To replace tree for tree in Marion, we’re looking to accomplish that by the third year if we continue our current pace,” Cimprich said. “We were already looking to increase our canopy coverage before the derecho, but here we are.”
In Hiawatha, about one-third of the city’s public trees were lost in the derecho, which is equal to around 800. Hiawatha Parks and Recreation Director Kelly Willadsen said city staff are able to manage planting around 50 to 80 trees a year.
“We initially had 100 trees that we planted and we had added an adoption program, so we got rid of 65 trees that way and planted the rest of them in parks and rights of way,” she said.
“We’re using that money as we go, but trying to get as many grants as we can so we can use those dollars as long as we can,” Willadsen said.
Hiawatha City Council approved $100,000 toward replanting after the derecho. The city also established a tree committee with Trees Forever and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to help update tree ordinances and determine which types of trees to plant where.
“We have had some communication with Cedar Rapids and Marion, but it’s not a partnership or anything like that,” Willadsen said.
Like other cities, Hiawatha also partnered with Trees Forever to give out around 400 trees to residents to plant at their homes. Hiawatha plans to host another one this spring.
“It will probably take anywhere from five to eight years to get back to normal,” Willadsen said. “It really depends on our adoption programs.”
Derecho put a ‘bullseye’ on Wanatee Park
In Linn County parks, hundreds of trees were planted in 2021, but even more than that will need to be planted in forests in parks like Wanatee Park near Marion.
“Wanatee got a bullseye put on it in the derecho,” County Conservation Executive Director Dennis Goemaat said. He said that about 70 percent of the county’s efforts next year will be focused on Wanatee, which lost around 75 percent of its canopy.
The county has put about $10,000 toward the replanting effort, Goemaat said, with thousands coming from grants. The county also is planning on working with AmeriCorps’ conservation corps, battling invasive species and monitoring replanting.
Conservation will check for “stump sprouting” in the woods. too. Oaks, hickories and other trees will shoot up new sprouts when a tree falls down and the stump remains.
Goemaat said the endgame is to restore the woodlands as they were before the derecho damage.
“We’re looking out 100 years to set that stage and we’re looking at how we get there incrementally,” he said. “We’ve replanted about 30 acres at Wanatee and are hoping for 50 acres this spring and more in the fall.”
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