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Science and the Environment

Volunteers Work to Save Joplin's New Trees


Sound:  watering

On this day in Cunningham Park, volunteers are hard at work lugging plastic, lime green, five-gallon buckets from faucets to trees, splashing water as they go, trying to save the 161 trees that were planted here.  Each tree represents a person who died when the EF5 tornado smashed into Joplin, taking out a third of the city.

All of the saplings that have been put in the ground since the storm have been donated by various organizations, eager to start the process of reforesting Joplin.  But the drought has been hard on the new trees, which need lots of water to grow.  Tom Meyer is manager of Carson Nurseries in Springfield…

"Freshly planted trees are real reliant on the human being taking care of them.  They need to water right at the root base, and there's very little root structure beyond what was just planted.  They can't bring in residual water from further out."

That’s why the volunteer effort is so important.  Rick Mayer, Joplin’s tree coordinator with the Missouri Department of Conservation, says volunteers are putting in an average of 340 hours each week watering the 562 new trees that have been planted in five Joplin parks affected by the tornado—two of which (including Cunningham) were completely obliterated but have since been rebuilt.

The volunteers come from various places—some are local, but others drive from far away to help out.  Drew Shuburte is a member of Hayti First United Methodist Church, which joined with the First United Methodist Church in Kennett to make a mission trip to Joplin.  On their last day, they were watering trees…

"It's hot, and it hurts to bend over for a long time, but these trees symbolize all of the people who've died, so it's really important to me and to the people who live here."

Trees that have been planted to replace the large, established shade trees are sturdy varieties—ones that can withstand strong winds.  Mayer says they’ve put several varieties in the ground including tulip poplar, several different species of oak, sycamore, hackberry, redbud and American Elms that are disease resistant and much less likely to succumb to Dutch elm disease, which has killed elms across the country.  And they’re mostly native…

"Because we know that native trees can survive drought in their native environment.  You know, this has always been kind of a droughty area on the edge of the prairie."

Each tree is surrounded by a doughnut of green— everything else is brown--a startling reminder of how long the area has been without water.

Because of the effort to water the saplings, so far, only around three percent of them have died, but the mortality rate continues to climb…

"I'm looking around the park now, and I see another one that I have to add to that list.  As the drought continues it's inevitable that we'll lose more trees even though we're getting a lot of water.  It's tough out there.  They're showing the stress."

But Mayer says, without the volunteer effort, three percent would have lived, instead of the other way around.

That encourages volunteers to keep helping. Callie Debretto is another member of the Hayti First United Methodist Church.  She hopes to one day see the results of their effort…

"We'll be able to remember how it looked like now so if we ever come back we'll be able to see how much it's changed and to know that we helped it."

Cyndi House, the wife of the Hayti church’s paster, agrees…

"We hope to come back in a few years and see these trees and bushes a lot bigger than they are now."

Jacob Qualls is a member of the First United Methodist Church in Kennett.  He says, while the work is hard, it’s also rewarding…

"It's fun.  It's fun to be able to do something for somebody else, and, you know, and at the end of the day you know that you've helped out.  It's a great feeling"

The volunteers are getting help from employees of the Worker Investment Board, a FEMA program for workers displaced by the storm.  Twice a week, they head to Joplin parks in white pickup trucks, loaded in the bed with plastic water tanks and hoses.  Steve Hull lost his job in February and was on unemployment until he was offered work with WIB…

"I need a job, so in the meantime 'til I can find a full-time job, I feel like I'm doing something that's worthwhile, and in a way I'm giving back to my community.  If I can keep the trees alive, sounds good to me."

And the effort extends beyond parks.  Thousands of trees have been planted in yards, which lost precious shade trees in the storm.  Kathy and Sam Firey moved to Joplin to a house rebuilt where one had been torn in two pieces by the storm.  The yard had once held large trees—now, they’ve planted seven small, donated trees and are trying to keep them alive.  Kathy Firey, who has health problems and needs oygen, says the new trees are like her babies, and she’s enjoyed watching them take root and grow even as they struggle to survive in the extreme heat and drought…

"It's going to shade our house and be really nice pretty soon, you know--it'll take a little bit of time, but it's nice to see trees around."

Howard Spiva huddled in his hall closet as the tornado ripped off his roof and blew out windows.  As he struggled to close his garage door, which had come open when the electrical system went crazy in the storm, debris knocked out the 89-year-old’s original teeth.  The wind also took down his trees.  He’s since planted five saplings, including red maples and a bald cyprus, given to him by the Missouri Conservation Department.  He says it’s an honor to be able to help reforest Joplin—and he’s even helped others plant trees…

"And one gentleman said, 'you know, I'll probably never live long enough for it be grown,' but he said, 'remember the street out in front of my house wasn't built by me, somebody has to prepare for you,' and we planted him two trees."

Spiva hopes that by planting trees, people will want to return and rebuild in the neighborhoods that were destroyed in the storm.

And the replanting effort will continue.  According to Ric Mayer, the goal is to put 4,000 more trees in the ground during the next planting season.

For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.