116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Every Sunday this summer, Nathan McDermott, 16, plans to be at Washington High School watering and caring for trees newly-planted after the derecho.
The land hurricane on Aug. 10, 2020, destroyed a majority of the trees on Washington High’s campus, particularly on a hill on the corner of Forest Drive SE and Cottage Grove Ave. SE.
Nathan, a junior at the school, is one of many students, staff and alumni who have found peace and tranquillity on the hill under the trees, and couldn’t stand to leave it barren after the storm.
Nathan is a member of the school’s “green team” — students dedicated to seeing sustainability projects implemented at their school, including a recycling program, picking up trash around campus and planting pollinator gardens.
Now, the students also will be responsible for taking care of the trees, making sure they’re watered and putting up supports for the trees if needed as they grow.
The replanting project, which is now being called the Washington arboretum, was a project spearheaded by David Duer, who retired from his position as a language arts teacher at Washington in the spring of 2020.
Washington Associate Principal Julie Cain said the school is “fortunate” to have Duer leading the planting project.
“Some of those trees were as old as the building, and it was heartbreaking to see them fall,” Cain said.
Cain was in her office at Washington when the storm struck. Although she said she probably should have sheltered in the basement, she was mesmerized by the chaos it was causing.
The trees were donated and planted by Washington High School Classes of 1976, 1984 and 1987, the Rotary Club of Linn County, and the Washington 9/10 iJAG Program.
On Sunday, the school hosted a grand opening for the arboretum.
The 27 native tree species that have been planted are beneficial to songbirds and pollinators. Each tree is identified with a small plaque.
Nathan was in his car when the derecho hit, and sheltered in the parking lot at Washington. He could feel the wind shaking his car and saw the trees coming down. After the wind finally died down, he was shocked to see the devastation.
This past spring, he helped replant trees and is looking forward to caring for them this summer.
“I’m really excited to see this new batch of trees evolve, and I can’t wait to see how it’s doing whenever I drive past Washington,” he said.
Nathan said he feels more connected to the school now that he’s been tasked to be a steward of the land.
During a year that was also disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nathan said planting trees helped bring the community together.
“Our future depends on sustainable development and respecting our environment,” Nathan said.
J.P. Graham is a science teacher at Washington and faculty sponsor for the green team. After the derecho, Graham said he was “surprised” by the Washington alumni classes who “came to the rescue so quickly” by donating money and helping to plant new trees.
His own children, 2 and 4 years old, will watch the trees grow, Graham said.
“When they get to high school, we’ll see how big the trees have grown,” he said.
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