Sharing Experience in the Wake of the 2020 Midwest Derecho

The sight that greeted the author at the first property he mentions in the article. Photo courtesy of the author.

About a week-and-a-half after the August 10, 2020, derecho that moved through and devastated a large swath of the upper Midwest, I made a trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, perhaps one of the hardest-hit urban areas in its path. The shear devastation was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Straight-line winds of up to 126 mph lasting a half hour or more were reported. Trees of every genus and species were uprooted, split in half or snapped in two, leaving long columns of splintered wood. Leaves and limbs ripped from trees were scattered everywhere. Vehicles were smashed, utility lines brought down with their poles snapped. Whole trees and limbs crashed down on homes and businesses, many of them smashing through the roofs. Damage was catastrophic!

Besides the most noticeable tree damage, cornfields were leveled, grain bins destroyed, roofs damaged, transmission towers toppled and high-profile vehicles overturned. Thousands of people lost power, cellphone service and the internet for weeks. Gas pumps wouldn’t work, and some people no longer had food or a safe place to live.

Having my name on Iowa State University’s website as a consulting arborist, I started receiving phone calls from residents looking for help evaluating storm damage. They wanted an ISA Certified Arborist to give them honest advice on which trees could possibly be saved and which ones likely would not survive.

At first, I thought this would be a great learning experience for me, having dealt with storm damage my entire career, but I’d never done so to this degree or magnitude. After seeing the destruction and feeling people’s heartache, I felt very good about the information I was able to pass along and the physical labor I was able to provide. It was very satisfying.

My first client and his property allowed me to provide direction in several areas. His home was in a very wooded section on the outskirts of town. Almost every canopy tree had been snapped off or torn apart, leaving tree debris scattered everywhere. They were without power, and the roadways had been blocked for a week. They even lacked running water, because without power, the well pump didn’t work. Fortunately, their home received a minimal amount of damage.

As we toured his property, I pointed out obvious hazards such as broken hangers, split trees hung up in adjoining trees and partially uprooted trees. I emphasized how important it was to hire a professional to mitigate these hazards and trim the crowns of those trees that were salvageable, or at least should be given a chance to respond.

It was obvious that some ground cleanup had taken place, so I asked him if he had already been working with a local arborist. His reply was that he hadn’t and that he was lucky to have been put on a list to purchase a chain saw, which he had acquired in short order.

He planned to do a lot of the cleanup himself. Our topic of discussion immediately turned to chain-saw safety and the extremely dangerous hidden problems he might encounter as a first-time chain-saw user.

The first thing I advised him to do was to go out and purchase appropriate personal protective equipment, especially chaps. We went over safety features on the saw he had purchased, pointing out the portion of the bar tip where kickbacks originate. I showed him how downed limbs could be loaded, which parts contained compression wood and which would contain tension wood. There were even a couple of spring poles. I showed him the proper way of releasing that tension. I suggested he always try and anticipate what was going to happen once he made his cuts.

When I finished imparting my safety advice, we focused on the remaining understory trees, which had fared much better than the canopy trees. There were small broken and tattered branches on the understory trees that weren’t destroyed by falling trees and large limbs. I identified those trees, mostly young, hard maples that with a little minor pruning and training could replace the lost canopy. I supplied him with some excellent pruning guides and stressed that under no circumstances should he try to work off a ladder.

Our next topic of discussion was tree replacement. I suggested he take the list of shade-tolerant varieties I provided to a local nursery and see what they had available. Tree selection and availability may be compromised for a while. Tree planting was next. I outlined best planting practices and the differences between planting B&B (balled-and-burlapped) versus container-
grown nursery stock.

My next stop was a property that needed assistance bucking up the many fallen trees. The property owner had recruited several stout young men and an older gentleman who became the group leader and sawyer. I recognized immediately that the old boy had skills in some areas but was lacking in others. I soon learned how to suggest safer cutting and removal techniques by getting his opinion on them first. We made great headway cutting and stacking brush, cutting firewood and safely removing a rather large limb that had fallen on a machine shed.

As arborists and consultants, I believe a big part of our job is to educate our clients and anyone else who might benefit from our knowledge and years of experience. For me, it was a very satisfying day. I would encourage everyone to take advantage of both the teaching and learning opportunities that arise in our daily work.

Steven Pregler is an ISA Certified Arborist and retired city forester for the city of Dubuque, Iowa.

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