116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — It had been more than a decade since Mary Jo Hammonds experienced a hurricane, but when the derecho’s ferocious, high-force winds last summer pummeled Iowa, the Louisiana native was ready to respond.
“When that storm hit, it’s like that was the closest thing to a hurricane since we moved,” said Hammonds, a Marion resident who works as a secretary in the Women’s Center at Mercy Medical Center. “We just kind of fell right back into hurricane preparedness.”
She said that she and her husband moved to the area in 2007, about two years after Hurricane Katrina struck the United States and a year before the historic 2008 Cedar Rapids flood. They had picked their house on high ground — as high as they could to stay protected from flooding.
The destructive Aug. 10 derecho made her think, “Oh my God, it’s like being back home.” After the 100-plus mph wind gusts and rain subsided, leaving behind widespread power outages, they swiftly cooked their food on the grill before it could spoil and helped their neighbors recover.
The derecho’s toll, amounting to a loss of about 70 percent of Cedar Rapids’ tree canopy and extensive property damage, has drawn comparisons to the deadly 2005 hurricane, the most expensive in U.S. history.
Before the storm: 2.9 million acres
Lost in the storm: 724,000 acres, about 25%
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Tree damage here was worse than Katrina’s toll on trees in the southeastern states, those who worked in the area after the Category 5 hurricane have said, because of the more mature tree canopy in Linn County. The canopy had taken decades to grow before the storm swept Iowa last summer with the ferocity of an inland hurricane, and thousands of trees took mere seconds to fall, changing the landscape for generations to come.
That’s where Planting Forward, a campaign from the Marion-based nonprofit Monarch Research Project, comes in. The initiative aims to replant 15,000 trees lost on private property through partnerships with employers in derecho-affected communities.
The nonprofit piloted the effort in the fall and it is picking up steam as the spring planting season gets underway, and many Linn County area homeowners like Hammonds look to replenish trees they lost.
Hammonds said she lost three trees, including an apple tree, at her home. On Friday, at a tree distribution event for Mercy employees to pick up free trees, she got a swamp white oak to begin to replace some of what was lost.
Being from Louisiana, she said she knew “that’s the one for me.” The spot is picked out and she’ll help plant, but her husband will do the heavy lifting, Hammonds added with a laugh.
“It’s such a positive but it’s a necessary part, too,” Hammonds said of replanting. “It’s just an extension of going through a disaster like that, when you participate in the rebirth and the positive stuff you can do to come back. It helps heal the psyche as well as the community.”
Employers as replanting partners
Clark McLeod, co-founder and chief executive of the Monarch Research Project, said to address the devastation to Linn County’s tree canopy, “You have to look at both respects: How do governments handle their land, and how do private landowners handle theirs? Two totally different problems — both trees, but the solution is totally different.”
For Cedar Rapids, the city has partnered with local nonprofit Trees Forever to draft a “ReLeaf” plan by this fall that will guide tree replanting in city rights of way and parks over a period of 10 or more years. The plan, guided by public input, will cover what type of species to plant and include some design plans for public spaces.
McLeod said cities have the advantage of having Parks and Recreation staff or other experts who can advise on tree replanting and provide crews to care for it. But for the approximately 227,000 people living in Linn County, he said there is a “huge education issue” to tackle to replenish the large portion of the tree canopy on private land.
“It's their land,” McLeod said. “They need to restore it.”
Oaks are the most prominent keystone species in Midwest
1. White Oak
2. Red Oak
3. Swamp White Oak
4. Bur Oak
5. Chinquapin Oak
6. Pin Oak
7. Black Oak
OTHER NATIVE TREES
In order of highest ecological impact
1. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
2. River Birch (Betula nigra)
3. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
4. Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa)
5. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
6. Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra)
7. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
8. Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus)
9. Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Additional native trees ordered through Planting Forward
1. White Pine
2. Shingle Oak
Source: Monarch Research Project
Partners are needed to make it happen, he said. And considering most property owners have a job, employers are the mechanism through which the replanting effort can grow and happen en masse.
“We feel like if we can get employers and employers to say we're willing to help, we can educate those employees through their own organization,” McLeod said.
His nonprofit purchased trees in bulk for six companies to give away to employees in the fall — Fiberutilities Group, Bowker Mechanical Contractors, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, Iowa Glass Depot, McGrath Family Dealerships and NXT Bank. Now there are about 30 partner employers.
Several community organizations are also partnering with the Monarch Research Project for its Tree Equity Program to distribute free trees to those who may otherwise face obstacles to replanting.
Hilery Livengood, the nonprofit’s chief administrative officer, said some companies have allowed employees to receive six free trees, and others ask their employees who request a tree to pay a small amount of money so there's some buy-in with caring for it over the years. But every company can tailor the program to its own culture and employees.
A three- to five-year timeline for replanting private land is McLeod’s goal with replanting happening in the fall and spring each year, he said.
To make that happen, McLeod said the nonprofit provides trees in 3- or 5-gallon buckets, which are easier for individuals to manage compared with planting a larger tree from a nursery.
“The right kind of root system is key to the whole process,” McLeod said. “So small trees will allow us to replant much more rapidly, and at a much lower cost.”
Replanted trees give hope
Wendy Nielsen, vice president of marketing and public relations at Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, one of the first pilot employers, said about 200 trees were given in the fall across its five locations to all employees, and another approximately 500 came on Friday to be distributed to employees who signed up for them.
She said the program has helped educate the company on the importance of planting the trees quickly and planting the right types of species that are native to Iowa. The company plans to help spread the message and be a channel to provide more information as the community replants.
“It was very clear to us as we learned more about the devastation of the 60 percent-plus loss of tree canopy across our community, and … the majority of our employees were impacted with tree loss, so obviously it hit home to us as well as many in our community,” Nielsen said. “We just knew that it was the right thing to do right off the bat and something that we just wanted to be part of.”
Michelle Niermann, president and chief executive officer of UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, said the company this week distributed 3,000 free trees to about 1,000 workers — more than one-quarter of its employees.
Its Planting Forward tree distribution happened just weeks after UnityPoint wrapped up its “Choose Hope” series of activities and events centered on reflecting on challenges, taking care of yourself and celebrating good moments.
After more than a year of health care workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines, then delivering health care amid power outages and communication challenges after the derecho, Niermann said this was a way “to replace a little something that people have lost.”
“I've had team members, even before this and certainly since this has come around, just talk about how sad they are about the change in their landscape,” Niermann said. “This is deeply meaningful to people, personally, so if you were going to invest in some way in recognizing or supporting your team members, this is a good way to do it.”
"I think it’s a way to start over again — almost like another birth.” — Crystal Shannon, St. Luke’s nurse
Crystal Shannon, 55, an advanced practice nurse for the emergency room at UnityPoint St. Luke’s Hospital, picked up three trees with her husband, Doug, 50, on Thursday for their home in Mount Vernon.
Crystal said it has been stressful to respond to COVID-19 and now to see the dynamics of Cedar Rapids change after the derecho, but Planting Forward is a good effort to help citizens rebuild and restore the habitat that wildlife need to survive.
"I think it’s a way to start over again — almost like another birth,” she said. “We’re moving toward the future.”
Linda Swanson, who lives in rural Mount Vernon and is a chaplain at the hospital, said that given what those at St. Luke’s dealt with over the past year with patients and with their own families, “some days hope was hard to find.”
This is a start to replenishing 123 walnut trees that were damaged on her wooded property, she added: “We choose hope and that’s what it signifies.”
These organizations are participating in Planting Forward this spring:
BetterLife, Bradley & Riley PC, Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency*, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, Cedar Rapids Garden Club, City of Cedar Rapids*, City of Marion*, CRST, Frontier Co-Op, Fiberutilities Group, GreatAmerica Financial Services, GreenState Credit Union, IGD Industries, ImOn Communications, In Tolerance, Involta LLC, Ledford Engineering Co., Linn County*, Linn County Tree Equity Program*, Mercy Medical Center*, Monarch Research, Raining Rose, Ready Wireless, Strategic Financial Solutions, UFG Insurance, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's Hospital*, Van Meter Inc., World Class Industries.
Tree Equity Program Partners*: The Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, Cedar River Academy, Iowa BIG, Leaders Believers and Achievers, Marion Alliance for Racial Equity, Matthew 25, McKinley STEAM Academy, Metro High School, Sunrise Community Action Fund, Wellington Heights Tree Equity Committee, Young Parents Network.
* = Trees are funded by Monarch Research and distributed by the organization listed.
Comments: (319) 398-8494; email@example.com