Joplin volunteers work to save thousands of newly-planted trees

Joplin, Mo. -- The Joplin tornado claimed dozens of lives and leveled hundreds of homes and businesses.  It also wiped out thousands of trees.  As part of the recovery process, new trees have been donated, but now the intense drought is threatening to destroy them.

"We're watering as many trees as we can get to today," said Marlina Zimmerman, 18, a volunteer who traveled to the area with a church group from Wisconsin.

"I think we were really surprised, at first, at how much you can still see. You know where the tornado went through.  We're not used to that, because you don't get many tornadoes in Wisconsin," Zimmerman said.

An estimated 20,000 trees were leveled in the 2011 tornado that claimed 161 lives.  Volunteers have helped plant more than 6,500 replacement trees.  But after months of little-to-no rain, the leaves are turning brown and the donated trees have starting to wither away.

"These trees are undergoing a lot of stress.  We've had hardly any water," said Joplin Tree Coordinator Ric Mayer.

Mayer is leading the effort to help keep the trees alive as the community works to rebuild.

"We're blessed to have a lot of volunteers here, and we're watering almost five days a week," he said.

At Cunningham Park there are 161 newly-planted trees:  each tree represents a life lost in the tornado.  That is why keeping the trees alive is so important; an investment in the trees is an investment in hope for Joplin.

"There are no pictures that can describe what happened here. No words to really describe it either," said Wisconsin Pastor Roger Miller.

Miller lost his own son 13 years ago and now onsiders it a personal ministry to find ways to help others dealing with loss.

"My greatest hope is that it will be a step in the process of the grief journey," Miller said.

So far Mayer said 14 other trees, outside the park, have succumbed to the drought.  But as long as volunteers keep the water buckets full, Mayer hopes there won't be any more.

"We hope they can survive, and we are doing everything we can to make them survive," Mayer said.

Mayer said Americorps is coordinating the volunteer efforts and said the city will likely need more people to help with the effort, starting in August.