After the Storm: A Joplin Update

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Published on: Apr. 15, 2013

Kelly Prater’s front-yard oak tree is far from tall and majestic.

Small and lonely would be a better description of the solitary sapling that has staked its diminutive claim on an otherwise treeless lawn on the south side of Joplin. However, a drive through the neighborhood reveals Prater’s sprouting oak isn’t as alone as it appears to be. Many neighboring yards are adorned with similar-sized young trees in the beginning stages of growth. Collectively, these trees are encouraging signs that Joplin’s storm-battered urban landscape,and the city as a whole, is on the road to recovery.

“The trees will make this area look like a home again,” Prater says.

Prater’s sapling, along with the two in her backyard and those in her neighbors’ yards, are among the more than 8,100 donated trees that have been planted thus far in one of the largest and most ambitious urban reforestation efforts in the state’s history. The goal is to restore the forestry component to an area that was destroyed by the May 22, 2011 tornado. This multi-agency effort includes the City of Joplin, Missouri Department of Conservation, Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, a number of local, state, and federal entities, and many civic groups and individual volunteers. Trees are being planted in Joplin and Duquesne, a small community east of Joplin that also experienced significant storm damage.

Extensive damage

The EF5 multi-vortex twister reached a maximum width of more than a mile as it cut its destructive swath through the city on a Sunday afternoon. The storm caused 161 deaths, 1,100 injuries, and approximately $2.8 billion in property damage.

Recovery from this tragedy has been difficult, but ongoing. From the outset, storm-affected residents and city officials were in agreement that tree planting was a necessary part of the community’s recovery plan,according to Joplin Planning and Community Development Manager Troy Bolander.

“I believe there are a couple of reasons why residents directly affected by the tornado have been so enthusiastic about the reforestation of their neighborhoods,” Bolander says. “First, it helps create a sense of normalcy of how things looked prior to the tornado. Second, the replanting of trees really does signify the rebirth of our community.”

Clearing and cleanup

In many places, the first step toward recovery was removal. Department of Conservation foresters, contract foresters, and volunteer arborists pooled their efforts with U.S. Forest Service Urban Forestry Strike Team personnel to assess damaged trees and do a tree inventory. When the cutting, clearing, and counting were finished, they determined that the city had lost between 15,000 and 20,000 trees.

“After the debris was removed, the path of the tornado looked like a 6-mile-long airport runway,” Bolander says.

From the outset, it was obvious that putting trees back onto this wrecked landscape—like all other aspects of the city’s recovery efforts — would be no small task. An urban reforestation effort of this magnitude had never been attempted before in the state, and there are few references for disaster-driven urban forestry recovery plans.

“In these types of situations — due to city location, city size, event type and severity, city resources, available volunteers, and many other factors — there is no standard response to replanting efforts,” says Department of Conservation Urban Forestry Coordinator Nick Kuhn. “However, certain themes carry across all factors and each urban forest manager must choose to work within their resources.”

Coordinating resources

“Community Forestry programs have been an important part of the Department since the 1960s,” says Lisa Allen, Department of Conservation Forestry Division chief and state forester. “As a matter of fact, we were one of the first state forestry agencies in the nation to dedicate a fulltime position to urban and community forestry. [MDC currently has eight urban foresters.] Our community forestry program has grown significantly over the past 20 years due to the expansion of urban areas in Missouri, which is creating increasing stress on many urban natural resources, including trees.”

One of the steps the Department of Conservation took for the Joplin project was to create the position of community forestry recovery coordinator, a two-year term position focused solely on the city’s tree recovery. Ric Mayer works with the Department’s Joplin Urban Forester Jon Skinner and other civic, state, and federal personnel. Mayer’s position is being funded through a two-year grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

Other entities were also involved in Joplin’s forestry recovery. The Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks made up to $400,000 available through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Recreational Trails Program to redevelop two community parks. Donation boxes were placed at all Missouri State Parks and historic sites and those funds were used to purchase and plant trees in Joplin-area parks. The Missouri Department of Economic Development authorized $155,000 in Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits for Forest ReLeaf for a total of $310,000 in contributions. The recovery strategy also called for a portion of the more than 1,000 workers hired through the Disaster Recovery Jobs Program to assist with Joplin tree-planting efforts. Trees were secured through the efforts of a variety of sources including Southwest Missouri Resource Conservation and Development Council, Silver Dollar City, Missouri Master Naturalists, the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri, and NASCAR. In October 2011, Governor Jay Nixon traveled to the Joplin area to host a tree-planting ceremony at Duquesne Elementary School.

A major contributor to Joplin’s tree recovery has been Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring volunteer efforts in planting and caring for trees and forests in communities. To date, Forest ReLeaf has contributed 3,000 trees and has added the capacity to grow 5,000 more trees at its nursery in St. Louis County to help meet the ongoing reforestation needs of Joplin.

“Forest ReLeaf has always provided trees to assist with reforestation efforts after natural disasters,” says Executive Director Donna Coble. “But the sheer scope of tree loss in Joplin, coming on the heels of major tornadoes in St. Louis County that spring, led us to rethink our role post-disaster and, as a result, expand our capacity to meet the long-range restoration needs in communities like Joplin.”

The Southwest Missouri Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC & D) has also had a significant role in this project.

“The RC & D mission is to identify a need in resource conservation, unique development issues as well as other needs of our citizens,” says Kathryn Braden, chair of the Southwest Missouri RC & D. “Then the goal is to bring the need and the solution together. Our motto is ‘Making things happen.’ Obviously, Joplin had a need and replanting the city’s trees would give the population comfort and hope.”

Planting hope

The tree plantings that began in the winter of 2011–12 were conducted in various fashions. Some were organized events that placed a number of trees in the ground in a single day. Other plantings were individual efforts by residents who had received trees through special application processes set up by the city governments of Joplin and Duquesne. The young trees dotting the landscape with increasing frequency gave local residents visions of what they would get in the future and, at the same time, provided clear reminders of what they lacked in the present.

“With the hot summer we experienced last year [2012], you really noticed the extreme temperatures and wind in the residential neighborhoods and commercial areas that were missing trees,” Bolander says. “We also noticed an increase in calls to our office concerning noise complaints. The trees in place prior to the tornado were acting as a noise barrier between land uses that were incompatible between residential and commercial properties. With the trees gone, there was nothing to deflect the noise.” Because of these observations, Joplin’s city government is in the process of updating the city’s comprehensive plans and ordinances to promote the planting of native vegetation and trees. Bolander says these steps will not only improve the visual appearance of Joplin, but will also provide visual buffers, sound barriers, erosion control, and wind breaks to urban spaces. These are good examples of how conservation pays by enriching our economy and quality of life.

It’s not that Joplin wasn’t tree-savvy prior to the tornado. A month before the tornado hit (April 2011), the city received Tree City USA honors for the fourth straight year. (The city earned this honor again in 2012.) Tree City USA is a nationwide urban forestry conservation program sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. In Missouri, the program is administrated through the Missouri Department of Conservation.

However, Allen says good urban forestry management, like other sound conservation practices, is an ongoing education. Evidence of Department of Conservation urban forestry efforts can be found in cities of varying sizes across the state, and all are examples of how the Department works with people and for people to sustain healthy forests, fish, and wildlife.

“Our mission is to encourage communities to invest in comprehensive community forestry programs such as Tree City USA before a crisis occurs,” says Allen. “A healthy and diverse community forest is much more resilient during catastrophic events and more likely to be sustainable for the future. In addition, creating public awareness of the value trees provide socially, economically, and environmentally to our communities is imperative to quick and efficient recovery of the community forest following a major storm event.”

Work in progress

The reforestation of Joplin is still a work in progress. Bolander says the city, with support from the Department of Conservation, is currently finalizing an aggressive tree-planting program that will be funded with disaster funds that have been received from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Joplin’s city council and city manager have allocated $2 million of these funds to purchase and plant more than 6,300 trees in the storm-damaged area.

Mayer says, even if no more donations come in for residential trees, Joplin can expect to plant 2,000 right-of-way trees each year through 2017. If donations for home trees continue, he says it’s hard to estimate the number of residential plantings that could take place in the coming years. Though the multi-organization, multi-stage nature of Joplin’s tree recovery project has made it difficult to put a cost estimate on the effort, Mayer says it’s easy to estimate its value.

“A house is not a home until people make it so,” he says. “When we plant trees, we are certainly recovering, getting ourselves and the landscape healthy.”

“We all have memories of our families that are tied to our natural surroundings,” he adds, “how our sisters played in the shade of the corner maple tree, how the wild cherries stained our hands. A lot of good times are remembered in the shade of an old oak tree. Those memories are the basis for living good times in the future.”

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