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WOOSTER, Ohio — Standing near the edge of a steep outlook, Ken Cochran scans the valley beneath, where open space and a newly graded contour form the landscape.
Just a few months ago, one could look out from the same spot and not see very far.
Large trees and vegetation prevented one from seeing even half way across the valley — much less to the other side, where U.S. Route 250 runs through the property.
A few yards to one side — along the same edge of earth and rock — is the remains of a gigantic oak tree. Cochran, who is a the curator at Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, Ohio, bends to count some of the rings.
One-hundred-fifty in all, he insists, making it the oldest tree at the arboretum, which dates back to about 1908.
A century of plant life was lost, along with countless research hours, and about 15 building were either destroyed or severely damaged. Students and researchers were displaced from their jobs — a few are still displaced — and damage estimates have reached more than $20 million.
It was a devastating experience for all — highlighted by the miraculous fact no one was seriously hurt or killed.
But it’s springtime now, and the sights and sounds of the season are permeating the recovery.
“As winter passes and we come into spring, you have the renewal that occurs with (nature), the temperatures go up, the trees and flowers start blooming,” said Steve Slack, OARDC director. “I think with that, peoples’ spirits pick up. They’re able to start thinking about the upcoming season.”
Cochran also is thinking about spring renewal, and the realities he’ll be faced with this year. But the tornado — albeit not how he planned — is the reason for the renewal.
“We would have never gone through what’s called ‘renewal’ if it hadn’t been for the tornado,” he said. “We’ve got some major losses and we grieve that. But what you do now is say, ‘how do I make it work.’”
For him, renewal means finding new uses for open spaces and planting more trees.
He recalls walking through the arboretum just a few hours before the storm hit, thinking to himself how he would like to open up new areas to the public, areas that had become too dense to walk through.
Now that open spaces are everywhere, he’s hopeful new paths will be paved. He’s also excited about a new feature being built — the Buckeye Forest Children’s Area — which will introduce children and adults to a forest in a way that lets them learn and have fun.
Cochran sees it as a way for people to “connect with the way we grew up,” even something as simple as playing by a stream.
“I’m hoping that they get underneath (trees) and hide and crawl and have fun,” he said.
Trees of all kinds are being replanted here at a rapid pace, many through donations.
The loud clang of fence post drivers echoes across the property, as posts are being erected to guide new trees. So many were lost at once that the wind is now much stronger, and support posts are necessary.
Trees are probably the single most important feature to restoring this place. Cochran said it’s the same challenge its founder, Edmund Secrest, faced when he began planting trees here in the early 1900s. At that time, Ohio had become badly deforested.
“His (Edmund Secrest’s) answer was plant more trees, and that’s our answer today, because we have all this land down here that is barren,” Cochran said. “What’s the answer? Plant more trees.”
And it’s really that simple, Cochran said, because trees do so much.
They give beauty and shade, protection against wind damage and soil erosion, and they’re part of the habitat and a food source for certain birds and other wildlife.
Trees were damaged across all of the campus, including the large ones that stood in front of Fisher Auditorium on the front lawn. Roof repair continues and there’s still work to be done on select buildings, including the research services building.
Since the tornado hit, faculty and staff, and even some students — have had to assume new responsibilities.
Slack and his associates, Bill Ravlin and Dave Benfield, typically deal with administrative duties at the campus — program planning, budgets, outreach and management. But for the past few months, they’ve also become storm recovery experts.
“Your day job when something like this happens does not stop,” Slack said. “So you just literally inherit a new job description.”
Benfield said storm recovery remains a top issue, one that “kind of consumes you a little.” But it’s a lot more organized than the first night, when the power was out, trees were down and walls crumbled.
“Early on, you just did what you had to do and that’s what took priority,” he said.
Local law enforcement responded quickly the night of the storm, checking for any injuries and establishing a command center through the county’s Emergency Management Agency.
Although no one was seriously hurt, it was important to maintain order and safety for those coming onto the property. And to restore electric to the darkened buildings.
Slack and Benfield both said having an emergency plan made all the difference the first night, and they now have a deeper appreciation for such plans.
Slack said he expects staff to be “reasonably unchanged” in how they approach their responsibilities amidst the tragedy. But at the same time, he hopes “that we’re a little bit more sensitive to the kinds of things that people are dealing with and trying to accomplish in their personal and professional goals.”
At a legislative update in March, Slack said some of the university’s researchers have lost plant and seed research that took many years to establish. Those losses will take much longer to recoup, if it is possible.
“What you are talking about is a biological entity that represents the seeds of the future,” he said. “What you’re talking about is losses of months and even years of research.”
But the faculty and staff are determined to restore and rebuild what is possible. Community support and volunteerism has been “extremely gratifying,” Slack said.
The arboretum alone has received more than $300,000 worth of donations, including $70,000 in in-kind donations, typically trees and labor. Expert garden groups have donated their time, as well as many interested students across the region.
On April 22, more than 50 landscaping and horticulture students — many from technical schools — gathered to help plant more than 200 trees and shrubs as part of an Ohio Landscape Association day of service.
Cochran said as the arboretum comes back, it’s doing so in ways everyone can enjoy. It’s become a popular site for exercise, weddings and for people who just want to relax in a scenic, quiet setting.
“Yeah, it’s a research center and we do study plants, but we’re not just that anymore,” he said. “They are here for reasons we don’t anticipate them being here for.”
The tornado actually has brought some new visitors, Cochran said, because of their curiosity to see what’s changed. Some had never even heard of the property, until word of the storm filled headlines across the state.
No one knows when all the recovery work will ever be complete, but Slack and Cochran are confident the campus is making positive strides. One of the most important things was getting people back to work, which mostly has been done.
Cochran is also focused on “sustainability” and “recycling.” Even though so many trees were destroyed, he was able to salvage some quality lumber that will be used in the reconstruction of some of the buildings.
The empty stumps bear testament to what was, and the new trees — of what will be.
He realizes restoring the arboretum to the way it looked before may not be realistic. Instead, he’s embracing what he has.
“It will have a new look,” he said, one he thinks people ultimately will be proud of.
New season brings signs of hope and progress (March 23, 2011)
Ohio governor, other officials survey tornado damage (Sept. 18, 2010)
Friends, neighbors come by masses to help rebuild barn (Sept. 30, 2010)