Iowa Derecho: So many trees lost, so little wood saved

A crew cleans up tree debris following the Aug. 10 derecho in Cedar Rapids, IA.

By Rich Christianson

The wicked Aug. 10 derecho that spawned tornadoes, high winds and torrential rains throughout the Midwest sent me to take cover in a basement for the second time in my life. One look at the fast-approaching gray green front was enough to convince me that the tornado alerts for the northwest side of Chicago were more than mere local news hype. I was instantly reminded of the 1967 tornadoes that struck Oak Lawn, IL, that caused my parents to shoo my siblings and me downstairs. That event claimed 58 lives.

Fortunately for us, the worst of the storm in my area were a few downed trees and many heavy branches. Many in Iowa were not so lucky.

According to the Washington Post, the Iowa derecho was the most costly thunderstorm in U.S. history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated damage in Iowa and other midwestern states at $7.6 billion. That’s higher than any recorded tornado and more than many hurricanes.

Cedar Rapids, IA, was particularly hard hit. Wind gusts of up to 140 mph plummeted the area. Electrical power was knocked out for nearly all 133,000 residents and more than 1,000 homes were rendered unlivable.

The derecho also wiped out about 20 percent of Iows’s crops and felled trees by the hundreds. 

Six weeks after the devastating event, the Des Moines Register reported that the city’s cleanup crews had transported 9,291 loads of tree debris to a huge metropolitan compost site.

Several other articles posted in the wake of the Iowa derecho reported how local woodworkers and artists were using wood from felled trees to make craft items, most of them being sold or auctioned to support relief efforts. But that’s a drop in the ocean considering the massive amount of wood that could potentially be repurposed. 

No doubt, the number one priority in this type of situation is clearing downed trees in the interests of public safety. But somewhere after the smoke clears, it would be optimal to have a plan for repurposing as many of these trees as practically possible. Doing so begins by integrating urban wood utilization into disaster planning. 

I think we’ll get there, but we’re clearly not there yet. We still have far to many metropolitan cities to integrate urban wood recovery into their urban forestry initiatives. But perhaps the Iowa derecho can serve as a wake-up call for municipalities to realize that even if they can’t plan what do to with trees after a natural disaster, that they can at least figure out what might be done to gain value from the sycamore tree removed from the Smith’s parkway.

Baby steps…