Monday, September 12, 2011

Lessons From New Orleans

In 2005, the world watched in horror as flood waters inundated much of New Orleans, Louisiana. Earlier this year, a massive tornado swept away a large part of Joplin, Missouri. This month, wildfires of epic proportions have charred large swaths of Texas. The costs in precious lives and property from these and other recent natural disasters have been devastating.

But for most people, disasters are usually "over there," soon to be forgotten as the next big event hits the news. It is the individual loss that kicks you in the gut and breaks your heart.

I learned this several years ago when I experienced my first real disaster, in the form a catastrophic and deadly storm that left several states locked in a sheet of ice. The sheer tonnage of frozen stuff killed or damaged tens of thousands of trees and shrubs in my community alone, destroying 20 percent of the urban canopy. Trees fell through roofs, uprooted buried utilities, and blocked entire streets. Some parts of town were without power for weeks in bitterly cold temperatures.

But it was huge limbs that crashed down on my roof hour after hour—snapping tree trunks that boomed like cannon shots in my front yard—and power that no longer drove my furnace, that made me truly grasp the deep emotional toll that a disaster can exact. Even after all the debris had been cleared away and the damage repaired, I was left with a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As New Orleans and Joplin and Texas know, there are wounds to the soul that cannot be healed with bricks and mortar. Certainly, we can never replace lost lives. And though we often can replace lost or damaged homes and businesses,  man-made structures cannot restore that vital element that we so often take for granted until it's gone: the visual tapestry and environmental anchor of our community's urban forest.

Aware of the importance of trees to both the environment of the city and the psyche of its population, New Orleans—still on its knees after the flooding from Hurricane Katrina—set out to test the restorative powers of re-greening.

With 75 percent of the city's famous trees drowned, Parkway Partners' executive director, Jean Fahr, began recruiting local citizens to supplement municipal crews in an ambitious replanting campaign. Once tree-lined Elysian Fields Avenue alone received more than 200 magnolias and oaks. Six thousand more trees soon went into surrounding neighborhoods, and the long-term planting program continues.

The response to this re-greening effort was amazing among citizens still grieving the loss of lives, property, and seemingly a way of life. The planting of new trees was akin to raising a flag on a ravaged battlefield. Passing drivers honked as workers dropped root balls into holes along Elysian Fields Avenue. One morning, a businessman in office attire on his way to work (see white shirt below) stopped to lend a hand. The spirit and pride of the city was returning one green tree at a time.

                                                                          Parkway Partners

Trees—green, living trees that cast shade and fill the air with birdsong—help us to reroot our own lives. And as they grow and prosper and once again fill out the scenery of our lives, we too heal.

New Orleans learned that. So can we all.

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