Staff Columnist

The derecho's calling card, a tangle of trees

A City of Cedar Rapids front loader clears a path from downed trees on Chandler Street SW in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug
A City of Cedar Rapids front loader clears a path from downed trees on Chandler Street SW in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

We take the trees for granted.

Sure, in the spring when they leaf out or bloom we take some notice. And in the fall when they paint the landscape we enjoy the show. But this time of year they tend to fade into the background, a canopy of late summer green that goes unnoticed, unless we have to mow around them.

Then came Monday and The Storm. Trees all around us were bent, broken, splintered, stripped and pulled out by their roots. They were twisted and smashed in our favorite parks. They fell dead in cemeteries and littered the fairways of golf courses. Trees whipped by 100 mile-per-hour gusts snapped power lines, blocked streets and fell on homes they had shaded for decades.

In the middle of a pandemic, at a time when many of us have found solace outdoors, the derecho closed our parks, trails and even sidewalks. Thanks again, 2020.

For all of the human and economic tragedies that accompanied the storm, from missing roofs to flattened crops, and the hardships that have followed, it’s the downed trees that are the calling card of this disaster. Everywhere you look there are trees destroyed or badly damaged, and branches piled high by homeowners trying to recover from nature’s madness. Shredded leaves are plastered everywhere.

Once shady drives through Cedar Rapids neighborhoods are now heartbreaking, risky weaves through destruction. The city’s trees have stood as tall symbols of its livability and history, shading the neighborhoods people cherish and the places people want to gather. The Tree of the Five Seasons is, literally, the city’s symbol.

Living in north Marion on sunbaked land that was a cornfield less than 30 years ago, I’ve envied these neighborhoods for their huge oaks, sycamores, maples and evergreens. Marion, too, lost scores of trees. City Square Park, for example, was decimated by the storm.

I’ve been called a tree hugger more than once for writing about environmental protection. And we’ve lost far more in this storm than the aesthetic presence of trees. The destruction of the tree canopy will mean more energy use to cool the properties they shaded. The ground they held now will be more susceptible to runoff that feeds flooding and harms water quality.


Trees don’t just stand around like politicians and talk about clean water. They do something about it.

Air quality will take a hit. Countless wildlife lost habitat.

So it’s an environmental disaster, too, stretching from central Iowa, through Cedar Rapids and on across Illinois. Its scope and cost has yet to be fully calculated. But we know the price is steep and it will take decades to recover.

Now comes the point where your columnist is supposed to offer a hopeful ending. I’m afraid I haven’t got much at the moment. Driving through the metro during the last couple of days has left me largely numb. The trees eventually will be hauled off and we’ll be left with a dramatically altered landscape. It’s going to be tough to get used to it.

Maybe what we should do is not get used to it, and support efforts to restore the tree canopy for future generations. The climate isn’t getting any cooler. We’re going to need some shade. The same environment that spawns madness also will heal and help new trees grow.

And let’s not take them for granted.

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