Rural Missouri Magazine

A changed landscape
Picking up the pieces a year after the derecho

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by Kyle Spradley

An aerial view, taken in February, shows a derecho-damaged property east of Fredericktown. Straight-line winds caused trees to all fall basically in the same direction.

Donnie Guinn steps out of his small farmhouse to greet his wife, Marty, who had just returned home from the grocery store. While reaching down for a bag of groceries, Donnie stares toward the sky and pauses, as something doesn’t look right. As a dark line of clouds creeps over the horizon, he urges Marty to head downstairs.

They didn’t realize it, but they were about to experience what several counties across southern Missouri faced May 8, 2009: a derecho.

Spanish for “direct” or “straight ahead,” this term describes a widespread, long-lived windstorm with a band of rapidly moving thunderstorms.

What started as a clear, warm spring day, quickly turned into an ominous evening. As the winds began to pick up, the newly leafed out trees began to sway.

From his tiny basement window, Donnie witnessed limbs, shingles and leaves fly by.
After 45 minutes of constant battering on the house and forest, the wind calmed down and the Guinns emerged from their basement. Now, a year later, the couple and the surrounding area are still coming to grips with the destruction left behind.

Marty and Donnie Guinn stand next to what remains of a large white oak in the front yard of their newly roofed home in Fredericktown.

“When we came up, it was just jaw-dropping with a wash of green and trees all over the backyard,” Marty says. “The leaves were just plastered on the side of the house.”

As this storm moved its way across the Midwest, it picked up steam in Crawford County and pelted the land with constant winds reaching upwards of 90 mph. It jumped the river into Illinois, leaving behind a band of destruction 20-30 miles wide.

Most areas received 3 to 5 inches of rain causing flash floods. Hail was reported in sizes ranging from a golf ball to a baseball. Tornadoes were even confirmed in Madison and Reynolds counties.

Derechos differ from tornadoes as they are a band of storms producing straight-line winds rather than just a single storm creating circular winds.

Thousands of acres of downed trees laying in the same direction were evidence enough that this was a different type of storm. In areas where tornadoes touched down, trees were sent flying in all directions, landing every which way possible.

The majority of structural devastation involved roof damages. Blue tarps covering gashes on tops of homes became a familiar sight in the following weeks. Most businesses and homeowners dealt with ripped off shingles, collapsed outbuildings and cracks along foundations and windowpanes. In the area, largely served by Black River Electric Cooperative, thousands of miles of downed power lines caused more than 15,000 members to be without power for up to two weeks.

Power lines fell along with timber during the storm. When the storm ended, linemen from around the state converged on the area to restore power. Photo by Jason Jenkins.

An estimated 114,000 acres of timber was damaged on public and private lands.

“As awful as it looks to us, the wildlife actually love it,” says Becky Fletcher, resource forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Fletcher also manages Amidon Memorial Conservation Area, just east of Fredericktown.

Gaps in the forest now provide better conditions for species such as the eastern wild turkey, which prefer open ranges to spot predators from long distances. Deer benefit from of young seedlings, their favorite food source. Remaining dead snags create perches and homes for birds.

Efforts are being made by MDC and foresters across the state to help along the process of restoration.

“We first are doing salvage timber sales to get damaged trees off the area,” says Fletcher. “As the areas get cleaned up, we strive for a balance with seedling plantings of native pine, white oaks, black oaks and other natives in areas in which they thrive.”

The biggest worry to the Conservation Department is the possibility of wildfires. On private and public lands, old roads that used to be fire-cuts are now clogged. That could make control of a fire an extreme challenge.

“It may be one of those where we have to back off to a distant road and someone’s house or property could sustain severe damage,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher urges landowners to get their property logged to help prevent wildfires and to not create a home for troublesome insects and diseases. She also advises to check the conditions before you burn and be cautious of what you are doing.

Plants and the wildlife aren’t the only ones seeing a once familiar environment being transformed into an alien landscape.

“I’ve been in these woods all my life and been everywhere there is to be around these hills, and now I feel like I’m lost,” says 56-year-old Donnie Guinn, who has called Fredericktown home for most of his life.

Clark Hinkle saws through a toppled oak tree on a property in Madison County.

The next few days and weeks following the storm became a blur for most as people began to repair household damage, clean up trees and deal without power. Road crews and neighbors worked almost endlessly to help clear the roads of debris as many were trapped in their own homes.

As the roads cleared, people were able to head into town. Aid was waiting for them. Organizations such as Americorp and the American Red Cross set up assist stations and passed out water and food supplies.

The future looks tough for landowners who experienced damage on their property. What used to be highly marketable land is now a wounded landscape.

Before the storm, many loggers had been out of work as a slumping housing market curbed demand for lumber.

“If this storm hadn’t come, a lot of people in this area probably wouldn’t have much to do,” says Steve Toppins, logger and owner of Toppins Sawmill in Fredericktown.

There is a downside, however. Loggers have jobs, but their work is creating a surplus of logs that are not bringing much profit and are just sitting at the sawmills.

“It helped the sawmills because they are getting cheaper timber, but the price has dropped dramatically and it’s going to have a real impact on how much the mills can pay their loggers,” says Junior Flowers, owner of Missouri Tie and Timber in Bunker.

Surrounded by acres of drying timber, thousands of cut and stacked logs sit untouched at Missouri Tie and Timber in Bunker.

Harvesting logs in the damaged areas also is creating quite the challenge. The time it takes to harvest most storm-damaged timber kills any chance for profit.

“You basically gotta cut your way in to wherever you want to get,” says Toppins.
Since the demand for building materials has gone down, mills are mainly producing railroad ties and pallet lumber. The sawyers try to make as much profit from a log as possible.

“The outer, scrap pieces we send over to the charcoal mills and grind up pieces for mulch,” says Flowers. “We use the sawdust to heat our boiler at the tie chemical treatment plant, whereas some other mills might chip it up for paper.”

Not only are the mills facing a surplus, they are battling time. Logs can sit on the ground for around 18 months before decay sets in and devalues the log.

As harvesting continues, the future appears dim for the timber industry in southern Missouri.

“Come this fall when there is nothing more to salvage, where are they going to get the timber?” says Flowers.

In contrast, things have vastly improved for the region’s power supplier.

“This thing came unannounced,” says Tom Steska, Black River’s general manager. “They said there was a possibility of a storm, but I think we were all surprised.”

About 60 percent of the co-op’s 3,000 miles of primary line coverage area was without power. The challenge soon began as crews were called in from across the state to repair more than 1,800 miles of downed lines and 2,500 broken poles.

William Lester removes slabs from a cut railroad tie at Missouri Tie and Timber in Bunker. Inner heartwood from fallen trees is used for the tie, while the remaining outer scrap pieces are cut for pallet lumber, chipped for mulch and paper or sent to another mill to be used as charcoal.

“Life became a blur for about 15 days,” says Steska, a former lineman who returned to the field following the storm. “We started working 20-hour days for about 15 days.”

Within a week, the majority of residents saw their power restored. A month later, power was fully restored, but the restoration was only temporary. Lineman came in to make permanent repairs to the lines.

A year later, repairs are still being made. Damaged trees continue to fall to the ground taking out sections of lines or poles.

“I can’t say enough good about our customers,” says Steska. “They were very patient. They could see from their own damage they experienced at their homes, farms and communities that there was a very unusual storm that had occurred.”

Being an avid outdoorsman, Steska shares the same feelings as others affected by the storm. “It grieves me to see the damage, but at the same time, I realize how thankful I am that there were very few people that had bodily injury,” says Steska. “Few homes were totally destroyed, but it shows the monumental task it will take to clean it up and make it look decent.”

Natural forces are in full swing as the environment slowly restores itself.

“In our lifetime, we may not see that big beautiful forest again, but it will start to melt down within 3-5 years and you will not be able to tell as much,” says Fletcher. “We are very hopeful and hope people come back and watch it every year as it changes.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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