Just months after it ripped its way through the Midwest, the derecho that slammed into the nation’s Corn Belt August 10, 2020, was labeled the costliest thunderstorm disaster in U.S. history. No other single thunderstorm event – not even a tornado – had caused as much devastation. There was more than $7.5 billion in damages,* according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with millions of acres of crops laid to waste, hundreds of homes severely damaged or ruined and thousands of trees destroyed.
This area of the country regularly experiences severe thunderstorms like the derecho. These events happen when warm, humid air masses coming up from the Gulf of Mexico collide with cold, dry air masses coming down from Canada, which is common in the spring and summer months. Because the Midwest is no stranger to the devastation these types of events can cause, companies like Wright Outdoor Solutions, Inc., an accredited, 14-year TCIA member company based in West Des Moines, Iowa, are always poised and ready to lend a helping hand in local communities after disaster strikes.
Chad Sutherland, arbor division manager with Wright Outdoor Solutions, provided emergency tree cleanup services for residential and commercial clients after the derecho. “Mother Nature can be unpredictable, so we have to be ready 24/7 to provide emergency tree care services,” he explains. “We can mobilize storm-response teams and equipment at any time to safely and efficiently clean up all kinds of storm debris.”
Being prepared to deploy quickly requires having teams of trained professionals and a fleet of equipment to support them. Vital equipment in the early hours after the storm ranged from loaders and chain saws for removing tree limbs and debris blocking roadways, to brush chippers and horizontal grinders to process all of the organic wood waste produced by the storm.
Preparing for the storm
A term coined in 1888 by Gustavus Hinrichs, a physics professor at the University of Iowa, derecho means “straight ahead” in Spanish and distinguishes the true nature of this type of storm from other thunderstorms – straight-moving winds from the swirling gusts of a tornado. Central Iowa averages one derecho every two years, and wind gusts during these events are comparable to the peak experienced in an EF3 tornado or a major hurricane.
The August 2020 derecho event more than qualified for its derecho title, with winds gusting to more than 70 miles per hour – up to 112 miles per hour in some areas – for the better part of an hour. When the storm was over, the derecho path tracked across nearly 770 miles of the Midwest, traveling through several states, including Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and lasting about 14 hours.
“That morning, a friend in Omaha, Nebraska, called me and told me they had just had a big storm roll through, and 45,000 people were without power,” says Sutherland. “About 20 minutes later, one of my employees received a text from his wife saying they had just had 70-mile-per-hour winds near Grand Junction, Iowa. At that point, I notified our crews that a major storm was heading our direction and to be prepared.”
Getting to work after the storm
Sutherland said that once the storm was over, his crews went right to work helping local residents and businesses. “We had a couple of crews get caught during the storm on roads that ended up getting blocked by debris, so they just started working for customers on the streets there. Crews that made it back to the shop were immediately dispersed as calls came in for help,” he says. “Our first priority was to open up driveways and roadways so people could get out – we needed to make sure there was no immediate jeopardy to people from falling limbs and other hazards. After that, we started removing trees from houses and cutting them into smaller sections.”
As piles started to accumulate, Sutherland’s crews used mini skid steers to move the debris away from their customers’ homes and businesses and out to curbs. Later, they circled back with their brush chippers to grind the wood waste and with their stump cutters to take out the tree stumps. To keep up with the volume of work, the Wright Outdoor Solutions crews also used log loaders to haul some of the debris back to their shop to grind. Sutherland says the company turned the ground wood waste into mulch for use in client landscaping projects and for sale to the public.
According to Sutherland, this effort is just part of initial storm-cleanup efforts. He estimates it’s going to be at least a year before his crews can completely remove all of the storm debris their customers had following the derecho. That’s because, even though the derecho immediately ripped such huge holes in the tree canopy above a number of Iowa towns and cities, the toll of the storm has only worsened in succeeding months. Wounds left by torn limbs allow pests and pathogens, such as oak wilt, to infect damaged trees. And as the seasons change, leaves begin to fall off the trees and expose splits in trunks that couldn’t be seen before.
“During a storm of this magnitude, you don’t always see the full damage to trees right away, because the trees may not be leaning or showing immediate signs of distress, so people often don’t notice what’s happened,” says Sutherland. “Once the tree limbs are bare, you can see things such as a split in the trunk – most likely from the storm, and then we need to come back to the property, do an assessment on the tree and make a recommendation on how to move forward.”
Supporting storm cleanup work
Throughout the cleanup efforts, Sutherland says the crews were able to keep up with the work thanks to the support they received from their local equipment dealer, which was ready to get equipment to, as well as lend services to, businesses like Wright’s that were working around the clock to help people recover from the storm.
After the storm, it’s weeks of people moving storm debris out to the curbs to be hauled off and handled. This means contractors aren’t just processing the debris right away, but they also are stockpiling a lot of it somewhere to deal with once things calm down a bit.
It is important for equipment dealerships to proactively stock up on parts for equipment out in the field to help make sure maintenance needs are addressed right away. They also should have additional equipment in stock and ready to rent out when customers need to supplement their fleets during peak work periods. The dealership’s product-support team also needs to make itself available 24/7 to address any equipment issues that pop up.
*For reference, the financial toll from the derecho exceeded 9 out of 10 landfalling U.S. hurricanes and tropical storms in 2020.
Kennedy Phillips is a product marketing specialist with Vermeer Corporation, a 38-year TCIA corporate member based in Pella, Iowa.
A version of this article previously appeared in the March 2021 issue of Construction Equipment Guide – Midwest Edition.