ReLeaf-ing Cedar Rapids

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September is National Preparedness Month. Each year National Preparedness Month is recognized to promote family and community disaster and emergency planning. Each year FEMA puts out a themed campaign during National Preparedness Month to bring attention to the need to prepare for potential disasters. 

As storm clouds rolled in on August 10, 2020, many of the residents of Cedar Rapids were unaware of the destructive capacity that was rumbling their way. Approaching this city of 137,000 was a massive storm that had already torn a wide swath across South Dakota, Nebraska, and much of western Iowa. By the end of the day, this “derecho” would roll through parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana, creating a path of destruction along the way.

What is a Derecho?

The National Weather Service defines a “derecho” as a “widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to the strength of tornadoes, the damage typically is directed in one direction along a relatively straight swath.”

On August 10-11th, a derecho pummeled its path across the Upper Midwest. Beyond the devastating straight-line winds, it spun off some small tornadoes, hail, and torrential downpours. Cornfields were flattened, houses mangled, and massive trees were uprooted all along the path. Over 1.9 million utility customers were affected by outages caused by the storms. In total, it is estimated that the spring 2020 derecho caused $11.2 billion in damages (2020 USD).

Midwest Derecho

Cedar Rapids is Steamrolled by the Storm

Located in east-central Iowa, Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in the state. The community, together with its metropolitan statistical area partners Marion and Hiawatha, boast a population of over 250,000 residents. Although it has long been an economic hub, the community has also emerged as an arts and culture center for the region.

But this bustling city quickly came to a halt that fateful day in 2020. Early that afternoon the derecho rolled into Cedar Rapids, at the height of its power, with wind gusts equivalent to an F3 tornado. But it blew through the community in a swath much larger than a typical tornado of that size.

Within less than an hour the storm damaged roughly 1,000 homes to the point they were deemed uninhabitable. Thousands of trees were knocked down, blocking roads and downing power lines. The majority of businesses in town were shut down as roads were impassible. Utility providers also had an uphill battle to restore service due to the lack of access.

Governor Kim Reynolds and Adjutant General Benjamin Corell of the Iowa National Guard toured the community on the 14th as cleanup operations were underway. At that time, General Corell compared the level of damage to Hurricane Katrina.

Trees in Cedar Rapids Shredded by the Derecho

Trees in Cedar Rapids Shredded by the Derecho; National Weather Service; Photo by: David Amelotti

Trees are Often Overlooked in Disaster Recovery

After a disaster strikes emergency management officials concentrate initially on making sure essential services are restored. Communities then typically work on longer-term clean-up and rebuilding actions. But rarely is there a concentration on trees in the recovery efforts.

Yet, restoring the tree canopy IS an important step in recovery. In addition to the aesthetic impacts that a tree canopy provides, there’s multiple other benefits. Trees have been proven to help lower utility bills, increase property values, and improve a sense of safety and community. Of course there’s also the impact to local wildlife when a city’s tree canopy is destroyed.

Pre and Post-Derecho Images, ReLeaf Cedar Rapids - Courtesy, Confluence

Pre and Post-Derecho Images, ReLeaf Cedar Rapids – Courtesy, Confluence

ReLeaf Cedar Rapids

In all, Cedar Rapids lost roughly two-thirds of its tree canopy in that fateful hour in 2020. Community leaders saw the need to take action and brought in a team that included Confluence (@thinkConfluence), Speck & Associates (@JeffSpeckFAICP), and Trees Forever (@Trees_Forever) to create a plan to restore the tree canopy. The resulting “ReLeaf Cedar Rapids” is an exemplary example of a plan to restore a community’s tree infrastructure.

ReLeaf isn’t a simple plan to plant trees to replace those that have been lost to the derecho. This extensive 120-page document illustrates the importance of trees to a community. There are several pages discussing the need for trees and how they can improve health, safety, and well-being.

The plan has a comprehensive tree list with viable details on each species that are helpful to residents in picking out what trees are best for them. Also, residents of Cedar Rapids are provided directions and helpful images on how to plant trees as well.

ReLeaf Cedar Rapids Plan Website

The appendix is also chuck-full of valuable information. It includes a prioritization table for parks and prioritization maps for the replacement of street trees over the next 10 years. Yes, that’s right, there are 10 maps prioritizing when and where street trees will go in over the next decade. Rounding out the appendix are sections with budget worksheets for trees and information on sources for further reading.

Years 9 and 10 of Street Tree Prioritization, ReLeaf Cedar Rapids - Courtesy, Confluence

Years 9 and 10 of Street Tree Prioritization, ReLeaf Cedar Rapids – Courtesy, Confluence


The work hasn’t slowed down with the adoption of the ReLeaf Cedar Rapids plan. Community leaders have already begun the march to plant 42,000 street and park trees in the next 10 years. The City has allocated funding and received grants to start planting trees in the areas laid out in the plan. In all, it is a $37 million emphasis to repair and improve the tree canopy in Cedar Rapids.

Additionally, Trees Forever has partnered with five local nurseries to provide tree vouchers for Cedar Rapids residents! Eligible participants can qualify for a $100 or $250 voucher towards the purchase of a tree on the ReLeaf Master Tree List.

Read more about the efforts on this plan, as well as the award that those involved in the process will be accepting from The Congress for the New Urbanism here:

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