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The Long Process To Replace Iowa's Trees That Were Down By A Derecho

NOEL KING, HOST:

A year ago this week, a powerful storm called a derecho blew through parts of Iowa. It destroyed millions of trees. Some cities lost half of their tree canopy, and only a small fraction of those trees have been replaced. Here's Kate Payne of Iowa Public Radio.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: Take a look outside. How many trees do you see? Now, imagine more than half of them have vanished. That's the reality residents of Cedar Rapids are living with. Sixty-five percent of the tree canopy here was wiped out by a powerful midday derecho, and many here are still grieving the loss.

NICK MCGRATH: For me, it's the wonder. It's the years that have been built up into these trees. You know, they've seen so many things, and that's all gone.

PAYNE: Walking around Bever Park with Nick McGrath to survey the damage is eye-opening. He's been hired by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the local nonprofit Trees Forever to help communities across the state figure out best ways to replant. It's a huge challenge. The storm packed winds comparable to a Category 4 hurricane and came with virtually no notice. While this city has been able to hire a dedicated replanting coordinator, other hard-hit communities don't have those resources. It's up to Nick McGrath to try and fill in those gaps.

MCGRATH: We'll help all of them as much as we can. Some of it is assisting with grant applications, doing the site maps, lining up volunteers to come out and do the work.

PAYNE: Nick McGrath helps cities decide where to replant and how, what he calls right tree, right place. And he helps them try to find funding, either from the state or private grants. But there's such a demand for new trees that many communities are struggling to get what they want or paying higher prices for replacement trees.

MCGRATH: There are very few people that actually grow trees in Iowa. A lot of the folks will order stock in from other states.

PAYNE: State foresters say it could take decades to fully replace what was lost that day. Of course, many of the century-old oaks that came down in the storm are simply irreplaceable. Larry Wiley has been growing trees on the banks of the Cedar River in eastern Iowa for 40 years. He says his woods will never be the same. He points to what had been a shady grove of mature maples and tiny seedlings.

LARRY WILEY: Before all this, you could look out, and there was like a carpet of little maple trees, little seedlings, four to six inches tall. But now they're so covered up with weeds and stuff, I don't know if any of them will survive.

PAYNE: Apart from the emotional loss, some Iowans say they can physically feel the absence of the trees. Some even lament that they're paying hundreds of dollars more on their utility bills this summer because of the lack of shade. Cedar Rapids officials promise to try to help restore the tree canopy in a way that's more resilient and more equitable than before, prioritizing hard-hit areas and those with fewer resources. Parks and Rec director Scott Hock says it's a challenge to match trees with residents.

SCOTT HOCK: Some people have the means to be able to re-establish their canopy. Some people don't. So we're working with our partners like Trees Forever and - to help find ways to get trees to those people as well, too.

PAYNE: New, young trees are already cropping up in parks, along sidewalks and in private yards. Some of the plantings are going in where there weren't any before. But a full year later, only a small fraction of Cedar Rapids' trees have been replaced. Out of more than 650,000 trees that were destroyed, city officials have only replanted about 1,200.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Cedar Rapids.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIC45'S "THE LANES DON'T CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.