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Joplin's New Trees Struggle To Survive Amid Drought

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Saplings — no more than 6 feet tall — dot the landscape in Joplin, Mo. They replace the large shade trees that were ripped out of the ground by a massive tornado that swept through town in May of 2011.

Nearly 7,000 new trees, donated by various organizations, have been planted. They include sturdy, mostly native, varieties, such as oak, sycamore and redbud — trees that can withstand strong winds when they're taller.

With temperatures above normal for the past few months and precipitation below normal, those trees have had a hard time taking root.

Volunteers, though, are giving the 562 trees planted in Joplin's city parks a hand. Lugging heavy, 5-gallon plastic buckets from faucets to trees in the searing heat, they pour water onto the base of the trees, a little at a time, allowing it to slowly soak into the roots.

In Cunningham Park, which was rebuilt after the tornado obliterated it, 161 saplings were planted, each representing someone killed in the storm.

"It's hot and it hurts to bend over for a long time, but these trees symbolize the people who died, so it's important to me and the people who live here," says Drew Shuburte, a member of the Hayti First United Methodist Church.

Shuburte is among the volunteers, mostly teens, who travelled several hours to get to the park on a mission trip. They work in groups of three or four, splashing water onto their shoes as they struggle to shuttle the buckets to the trees. Their assignment on their last day in Joplin was to water trees in Cunningham Park.

Because of the efforts of Shuburte and many others, Joplin's tree coordinator Ric Mayer estimates only about 3 percent of the new trees in Joplin's parks have died.

Some who water the trees are paid to do it. Twice a week, six people, wearing neon-yellow vests, head to the parks in white pickup trucks, each bed loaded with a hose attached to a large white plastic water tank. They're part of the Worker Investment Board, a federally funded program for workers displaced by the storm.

Tom Meyer, manager of Carson Nurseries in Springfield, says these trees are especially vulnerable to the drought.

"Freshly planted trees are real reliant on human beings taking care of them," Meyer says. "They need to water right at the root base, and there's very little root structure beyond what was just planted. They can't bring in residual water from farther out."

That's why the volunteer effort is so important. Without it, Mayer estimates more than 95 percent of the new trees would now be dead.

Still, the trees continue to suffer. Brown, curled leaves on some of the trees at Cunningham Park don't discourage volunteers from continuing their effort. Callie Debretto, another member of Hayti First United Methodist Church, hopes to one day see the results of their effort.

"We'll be able to remember what it looked like now, so if we ever come back, we'll be able to see how much it's changed and to know that we helped it," Debretto says.

Four-fifths of the parks are now replanted, and as they continue to rebuild, coordinators are also focusing on planting trees in residents' yards.

Copyright 2012 KSMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.ksmu.org.

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