Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Erik Petersen

August 2006

Planting seeds of hope

A star magnolia is a symbol.


On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf States. The National Weather Service reports that Slidell, Louisiana, located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained winds of more than 176 mph and gusts of over 190 mph, and was hit by a 23- to 26-foot storm surge. The deadly storm damaged over 90 percent of the community and left 40 percent of its citizens homeless.


Though it was dubbed "The Forgotten City" because it had been hit by the eye of the storm but received less press coverage than the flashier New Orleans, Slidell has not been forgotten in Wisconsin and has received support from the City of Beloit to bring back part of what Hurricane Katrina swept away.

In fact, this year, citizens of Beloit (pop. 35,000, which is similar to the size of Slidell) raised about $2,500 and donated it on Arbor Day 2006 for tree plantings in John Slidell Park in Slidell. Like Beloit, Slidell valued its urban forest in the pre-hurricane days, for the sense of beauty it gave the community. As people in Beloit discussed the project, some came to learn that they had relatives in Slidell.

Bruce Slagoski, terrace operations supervisor for the City of Beloit is proud of how the community has come together to support plantings for trees most of them will never see. One couple, he recalls, donated $200 toward the project to mark their wedding anniversary. On Arbor Day, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin visited Beloit as it celebrated its 18th year as a Tree City USA by planting a star magnolia dedicated to Slidell.

"Beloit reached out to help Slidell and people here have said that if they needed help someday – if a storm devastated their community – they hoped some other community would do the same for them and help them replant their trees," Slagoski says. "None of us can really imagine going through what the people of Slidell did. We can't imagine a Beloit without its trees."


Trees in the Village of Viola were severely damaged by a tornado in 2005. © Jeff Roe

On August 18, 2005, a strong storm roared through Viola. The storm eventually spawned a tornado that devastated the small village, destroying nine homes, one business, and damaging more than 100 other buildings. Additionally, about 1,000 of the community's trees were damaged or destroyed. Total damage was estimated at $2.4 million.

Immediately, volunteers began to arrive to assist with the clean up effort and the replanting of Viola began. The group that formed to put Viola's urban forest back together was named "Trees for Viola."

"A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless; forests which are so used that they cannot renew themselves will soon vanish, and with them, all their benefits." – Theodore Roosevelt

Because FEMA funding was overextended due to multiple disasters, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce contributed a $600,000 reconstruction grant and another $821,000 came from a block grant. Trees for Viola raised over $29,000 for replanting and other restoration projects and an additional nonprofit organization, the Vernon-Richland Recovery Project, raised over $85,000 in private donations.

On the weekend of April 29, 2006, about 390 volunteers from over 30 volunteer organizations chipped in to help restore Viola's tree-lined streets and yards. About 300 trees were planted that weekend and a celebration dance was held at Viola's community building.

"The elderly of Viola feel the loss of their tree canopy more deeply than the newer residents," says Harley McMillen, director of the Vernon-Richland Recovery Project Inc. and treasurer of Trees for Viola. They lived under the canopy of trees that was destroyed so quickly, and although they are happy that we are now planting new trees, they are saddened that they will not live long enough to see these new trees grow into the beautiful canopy that they treasured so much as residents of Viola."

Trees for Viola plans to build on the replanting efforts over the next two years with the goal of planting its 1,000th tree in April 2008.

This story excerpted from articles by
Dan Simmons that appeared in the LaCrosse Tribune.