Another beloved landmark tree fell this month when powerful storms snapped a 200-year-old Shumard oak at a Nashville middle school. It’s one of thousands of trees claimed by winds and tornadoes across Middle Tennessee this spring.
Now several groups are mobilizing to “re-leaf” the region. But they’re finding that it’s not just the disruption of the pandemic that’s complicating efforts, but also the hesitations of a community that fears the destructive threat of falling trees.
Just ask Brad Price, whose home on Holly Street in East Nashville took a direct hit.
The tornado took off its roof. A downed electric transformer left a crater in his front yard. And in every direction, trees wreaked havoc on their way down — dragging down power poles, crushing cars and homes and rupturing front yards with their uprooted trunks.
“Well, there’s just no more trees, which is really hurtful,” Price said during the cleanup three days later.
Yet at the same time, he found an unsettling silver lining. The loss of all those trees, from his hilly vantage point, revealed a view of the downtown Nashville skyline from his front porch.
And from that first week of recovery, Price says the skyline sticks with him, silhouetted against glowing orange and pink sunsets.
“My view is unbelievably different now,” he said. “You know, trees are dangerous — and tornadoes a little more — but we’re gonna live to tell about it.”
This tension about trees will complicate decisions for many people, since the damage has been so widespread. The Super Tuesday tornadoes utterly abused the trees — snapping, shredding, uprooting and flattening thousands across some 80 miles.
‘Like A Bomb Had Gone Off’
The winds ripped through forests in several city parks, left tree trunks scattered in spiraling circles, and also badly damaged some award-winning trees from the Nashville Tree Foundation’s Big Ole Tree Contest.
Vicki Turner runs that program, and after the tornadoes she used damage reports to check on most of the winners in the storm’s path.
“I was poorly prepared for the drastic devastation that I saw, particularly the trees that were mutilated. I had no idea it was that bad,” Turner said. “It really looked like a bomb had gone off.”
For the most part, she found the winning trees survived — like a Yoshino cherry and a landmark cottonwood in Germantown.
Others were maimed but still standing, including a black gum in Shelby Park.
“I was really fixating on the trees that were down,” Turner said. “And much to my joy, the black gum was still standing.”
The region’s canopy took its next beating in early May, when widespread straight-line winds knocked down another batch of trees. And these extreme moments hit on top of preexisting challenges. Development pressure, tree diseases, storms and old age have been costing the city an estimated 9,000 trees per year, according to a state estimate.
“Our tree canopy from the last 10 years has reduced significantly,” said Jennifer Smith, horticulturalist for Metro Public Works. “And so it’s not just adding to the canopy. We’ve got to just try to stay even, and we’re not even doing that.”
Smith argues the need is urgent, and that the case in favor of trees is stronger than ever. They improve air quality, cool the urban core, reduce home energy bills, defend against stormwater runoff and dampen noise, she says.
Listen to Metro Public Works Horticulturist Jennifer Smith discuss the city’s tree canopy:
But as so many have learned lately — falling trees can also cause damage, and depending where they land, insurance coverage isn’t always helpful.
So enlisting residents to re-plant could take some finesse.
“I do think we’ll have to overcome some negativity about trees. But I think through education that we can review the benefits,” Smith said. “They’re working for us.”
Despite the setbacks, there are reasons to have hope for the canopy.
For one: Nashville has been through this before, in 1998.
“It brought back a lot of memories. Very visceral,” Eleanor Willis says of the latest storms.
Willis survived the 1998 tornado after fleeing from Shelby Park, where the Nashville Tree Foundation happened to be having a party in honor of the city’s impressive trees. She sheltered inside a church that was heavily damaged, and said she came out with a newfound mission.
Listen to Eleanor Willis recount her brush with the 1998 Nashville tornado:
The storm jumpstarted everyone with the foundation, and the group planted more than 6,000 trees in three years.
“This gave us a reason to coalesce,” Willis said. “It’s amazing when people can put their hands in the soil and do something constructive and have a beautiful tree.
“Knock me down, but I’ll get right back up.”
This time, the foundation has announced an even bigger plan. Their “ReLeaf 2020” aims to raise $1 million and plant 10,000 trees. And the effort dovetails with the existing Root Nashville initiative, in which Metro and participating nonprofits aim to plant 500,000 trees by 2050.
Plus, the tree foundation has more allies this time. The Cumberland River Compact is leading Root Nashville, and the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps is contributing thousands more.
“Only when a [storm] passes through do you find which trees were hollow,” said Noni Nielsen, board president for the tree foundation.
To her, the storms could raise interest in trees and how to best care for them.
“I don’t want people to start seeing trees as a potential hazard, and to start cutting them down, or only planting understory trees,” she said. “We need big canopy trees. And if they’re maintained properly, they last over 100 years and offer way more benefits than risks.”
Nielsen admits the pandemic has slowed the efforts, including canceling group plantings.
But she said one outcome could be to shift the emphasis toward more tree giveaways to homeowners, as well as education efforts on how and when to plant, and how to adhere to Metro’s rules.
But that change does push responsibility to individuals.
So those wary of trees, like Brad Price on Holly Street, will have to decide what to do. He still has his eyes on a damaged walnut tree in his backyard.
“There’s still one of the big limbs that’s hanging over my existing house. And, you know, do I just bite the bullet and just take this thing down?” he said.
For him, the calculation is tricky. He already lost some trees, but gained a skyline view — and then, what’s the value of the shade that his damaged walnut gives him out back?
“It’s big, so if it does something, it’s going to do damage again,” Price said. “But we didn’t touch it.”
Nashville tree recovery efforts