People across eastern Nebraska and western Iowa awoke to devastation the morning of Oct. 26, 1997.
Up to 20 inches of heavy, wet snow fell on still-leafy trees, resulting in downed trees, limbs and power lines. Streets were blocked. Houses and cars were damaged. Power outages lasted days — even weeks — in some areas.
The storm killed an estimated 3 percent of metropolitan Omaha-area trees, and damaged 30 percent of the rest.
In response to the loss, The World-Herald launched an initiative, Branching Out, to help restore the tree canopy. Through $1 million from The World-Herald, $630,000 from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and support from the City of Omaha and other community partners, more than 400,000 trees were planted across the Midlands.
Branching Out started in 1998 and continued for several years. People could choose from a variety of trees, including green ash, honey locust, red oak, white oak, northern catalpa, American linden, Shumard red oak, sycamore, ginkgo, hackberry, sugar maple, swamp white oak, tulip tree and black walnut.
The region's tree canopy still hasn't recovered from the 1997 storm, and drought, storms and disease have damaged it further since then. But Branching Out made a big difference in replacing damaged trees and planting other trees where none had been.
“That program was huge. It shows how you can really reap the benefits of what they did back then,” said John Wynn, Omaha city forester.
Thanks to tender loving care from homeowners and professionals, many grew to grace yards, streets, lanes and parks today.
One such tree is the bur oak that shades a bed of lilies in a grassy island of Sunset Trail and Burt Street, on the fringes of Omaha's Dundee neighborhood.
Jerry and Mary Mahoney cared for the island at the time of the storm.
Mary Mahoney, who is fond of trees and the beauty they add to a neighborhood, vividly recalls the morning after the storm.
“It was just awful,” she said. “We had limbs lying all over the neighborhood. We were out of power for five days.”
When the Mahoneys heard Branching Out was offering free trees, they thought, “Hey, that's a good idea,” Mary Mahoney recalled. “If we tend it and take care of it, it'll look good and add something to the neighborhood. And it has. It's really pretty.”
They chose an oak from the several varieties offered in the program. An aim of Branching Out was to add diversity in types of trees, particular in Omaha's urban arbors.
The Mahoneys initially thought they would plant the oak in their own yard. They decided to plant it in the island. They've contributed to its care in the ensuing years.
Before the 1997 snowstorm, the tree canopy was so lovely at 45th and Pierce it reminded Patricia “Murphy” Benoit of traveling a gentle country lane.
Much of that canopy crashed to the ground in the snowstorm. The morning after revealed a stark streetscape.
“I took pictures with color film, but they looked like black and white,” Benoit said. “All you saw were dark tree branches and very white snow.”
Many neighbors lost whole trees.
Benoit and at least six other homeowners on her block leaped at the offer of a free tree, and professional help planting it, in 2000.
“They gave me six or seven options,” Benoit said. “I picked the pin oak, because I've always loved oak trees. They planted it. They mulched it. They staked it. They wrapped it. And then I nurtured it.”
Add water and 13 years, and the tree stands about 20 feet tall.
A bike ride through Benoit's neighborhood is not quite a spin down a country lane, but you'll have no trouble finding shade. Oaks and ginkgos and ash trees that appeared to be of similar age to Benoit's oak grew in the parking strips in front of many houses.
Not a block west of her house, a young oak reached across Pierce Street and joined its shade with that of a towering silver maple much its senior.
“It's not quite back to what it was,” Benoit said. “But it's getting there.”
Of course, not all of the trees planted at that time are Branching Out trees. In yards and parks all around us, many were planted simply through homeowners' initiatives or other tree planting programs.
Still, to look back on Branching Out and see what time and care have wrought is to appreciate what planting trees today can do for the future.
Wynn, the city forester, cruised 45th and Pierce Streets after The World-Herald asked, “Whatever happened with those Branching Out trees?” and he dug out floppy disks with lists of the trees.
“Those trees are only 13 years old, and they're that big already,” Wynn said. “You don't really pay any attention year to year to how a tree is growing.”
Wynn surmised that many people planted new trees who otherwise might not have done so.
Many Branching Out trees were not replacements at all, but additions.
Such are the locust and crab trees in the Jensen family's yard near 168th and Harrison Streets in the Millard area.
“A new home with an empty yard was the perfect canvas for growing trees as well as a growing family in the spring of 1999,” Annette Jensen wrote in an email to The World-Herald.
“A locust tree and a crab tree planted in our backyard have flourished and grown with our two children. My husband has taken two of the locust tree seedlings and has planted them, creating lovely, lacy shade in our backyard.”
She has pictures of her children, Reid and Rachel, and the trees that illustrate the change: First-grader Reid seems about the same size as the crab tree in a back-to-school photograph from 1999. In a picture from this summer, he has grown into a college man, but the crab is three times as tall. The locust rises above the family's two-story house.