OMAHA, Neb. — Before it was the Cornhusker State, Nebraska was the Tree Planter State. Settlers arriving in the 19th century softened the featureless horizon, blocked the wind and anchored the rich prairie soil by planting thousands of trees. Arbor Day was conceived here.
But the fierce snowstorm that struck the Plains in mid-October devastated Nebraska's verdant cities. Still-leafy branches trapped the thick, wet snow, then splintered under the weight and fell on cars, homes and power lines. Some trees split down the middle.
"We've had tornadoes and we've had floods, but they've always had definite paths," Omaha Mayor Hal Daub said. "We've never had every inch of our city damaged like it was by this storm."
The storm damaged or destroyed about 85% of the trees in Omaha, a city of 345,000. The cost of cleaning up and replacing them is estimated at $60 million. City officials in Lincoln said 25,000 trees--one-quarter of those owned by the city--would have to be cut down.
"This storm really hit a soft spot," Omaha resident Joseph DiMinico said. "This city really loves its trees and its landscaping."
Central Nebraska had the heaviest snowfall, with 23 inches at little Clay Center. But the most tree damage was in the eastern part of the state, in Omaha, which received 9 1/2 inches, and in Lincoln, which got 11.
"I'm very depressed by what's happened," said John Fech, a Douglas County extension agent. "[Omaha's] going to be very different from here on out. It's almost as if everyone has moved to another place with a different landscape."
Two people were killed in Nebraska during the storm, and the damage to power lines left thousands of homes and businesses without power or heat.
Arbor Day was invented by J. Sterling Morton, a nature lover who moved from Detroit to a farm on the Nebraska prairie. He quickly planted trees, shrubs and flowers around his home and proposed a tree-planting holiday in 1872.
By 1894, Arbor Day was observed nationwide. Morton became agriculture secretary under President Grover Cleveland.
"[Morton] has a tear in his eye" right now, said John Rosenow, president of the Lincoln-based National Arbor Day Foundation, which has an annual budget of $18 million. "He cared so much about trees in this part of the country."
Morton's farm at Nebraska City, 44 miles east of Lincoln, escaped much of the damage from the storm. Most of the apple trees in his orchard had dropped their fruit and branches were able to support the weight of the snow.
DiMinico in southeast Omaha was not so lucky. One of the storm's casualties was in his frontyard--an 80-foot-tall oak believed to be 100 years old. Three days after the storm, the tree was cut into pieces and piled into neat stacks that took up much of his yard.
"Trees take a long time to grow like this," DiMinico said. "You can't buy an old tree. . . . But grandparents have to pass away and I guess old trees have to die."
The National Arbor Day Foundation is not encouraging Nebraskans to run out to a nursery right away to buy trees. "We're all for tree-planting," Rosenow said. "But we want people to give priority to the trees that have been damaged and take stock next spring."
Many of the damaged but still standing trees will begin snapping back into shape once the storm's snow melts, he said.
But come spring, Nebraska's largest cities won't look the same.
"So many think of us don't think about trees when they're doing fine and they're doing their job," Rosenow said. "They're such a vital part of our home landscapes and our communities."