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Cleaning up after the storm: an interview with East Hills' Rachel Lee

"It's not just asking, 'What do you do in the storm?' but also, 'What do you do after the storm?' and 'How do you take care of what's happened?'" says Lee.
Hollow Tree in East Hills from the tornado and storms on August 20, 2016.

Hollow Tree in East Hills from the tornado and storms on August 20, 2016. /Eric Tank

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A hollow tree fell on a house on Fitzhugh Street.

A hollow tree fell on a house on Fitzhugh Street. /Rachel Lee

Thank you pizza from East Hills to the City of Grand Rapids' Forestry crew.

Thank you pizza from East Hills to the City of Grand Rapids' Forestry crew. /Rachel Lee

Rachel Lee, Director of the East Hills Council of Neighbors started livestreaming a video on Facebook as soon as the tornado and storms had passed her area on Saturday, August 20, 2016, sharing news and warnings with her community as soon as she could.

“It’s not just asking, ‘What do you do in the storm?’ but also, ‘What do you do after the storm?’ and ‘How do you take care of what’s happened?'" Lee said.

Lee wants the community to continue to be as vigilant about the cleanup process as they were during the tornado warning in order to minimize injury to people and damage to property.

“I’d have to say the biggest concern from this weekend was the downed wires and not just the downed trees," Lee said. "There were so many downed wires, and the thing is, they were hiding in the trees, too. I was noticing a lot of kids come out and they would just run up to things."

"Be very cautious of walking around," Lee said. "Fallen trees, damage, I know it’s interesting to look at, but there’s also safety precautions. There were so many runners out after the storm and I kept saying, 'Downed wires, downed wires!' Fuller was closed because of downed wires. A utility pole in Eastown literally split at the top. So, those wires hide in those fallen tree branches. So if it’s arcing or sparking, be cautious regardless, but if it’s arcing or sparking, stay as far away as possible. And watch out for your animals, too, don’t just let them out!”

Lee suggested community members all do a walk-around of where they live even if there’s no obvious damage.

“Do a walk-around of your property to see if there’s any branches hanging," Lee said. "I noticed right after the storm there was a couple large branches that were just hanging from trees and so we need to get those reported. Call your property insurance for personal property damage. If you’re a tenant, call you landlord and let your landlord know.”

And for all those trees in the road that make the most dramatic post-tornado photos?

“Obviously the big question is about the trees. If the tree originated from the parkway then people should call the City at 311 and get their property on the list. The parkway is the right-of-way between the sidewalk and the curb. That’s City property. You take care of it, but the trees are the City’s responsibility,” Lee noted. “Start with 311. It’s the central location for all those addresses. The City crews have been working all weekend since this happened, they’ve been amazing. And the utilities have been out there."

Lee noted East Hills has been so appreciative of the extra time the City crews have put they brought pizza to the Forestry crew on Tuesday, August 23, 2016, to say thank you for all their hard work cleaning up the neighborhood. "Toppers Pizza threw in some extra love too," Lee said.

The tornado and accompanying storm really impressed upon Lee the need to find out more about recognizing trees that look big and healthy but are hollow on the inside. Both the large trees that fell on a neighbor’s house on Fitzhugh Avenue and a large on that on the fence at Mangiamo’s were hollow.

“One of the big questions I’m going to be asking the city is what do we do about these hollow trees? Is there a way to find out if trees are hollow?” Lee said.

Just a week ago the City of Grand Rapids removed a tree on Lee’s street. She is so grateful now.

“I can’t tell you how many neighbors came and told me how lucky I was that the City came earlier this week and cut that tree down across the street from my house! Because that was hollow, too, and that would’ve come down. It was a big joke with the City workers,” Lee said. “I was like, ‘Are you sure you have to cut this tree down?’ And they were like, ‘Ma’am, it’s cracked all the way through, it’s hollow.’  And the tree was hollow all the way through! And of course it would have fallen on my house during the storm.”

When asked how the City knew to cut down the tree, Lee replied, “One of my neighbors called in the crack in the tree. A lot of it is just residents calling in. East HIlls has an Urban Forestry Plan, too, so the neighborhood has a good grasp on our tree canopy, what’s happening. Obviously, we want to save as many trees as possible and we want to plant as many trees as possible, but we also want to make sure from a neighborhood standpoint that we have quality maintenance of our existing trees.”

In December of 2015 East Hills put in 100 trees as a part of that Urban Forestry Plan. Lee said they’re doing well. “I’ve gone around and checked on them. It’s mostly our older established trees that were hit the hardest, and of course those were the hardest to lose, too. It’s really sad when we have a day like Saturday when we lose a large number of trees. Obviously because we want to get replacements back in there, but it’s hard to replace a 100-year-old tree. It changes the landscape, it changes the streetscape, it changes your memories of a place.

Lee reiterated that it’s not just what the community does during the storm, but after that’s important.

“Call 311 and get on that list. You have property insurance for a reason, so call them. Calling a proper tree removal service is also highly recommended. The last thing I think anyone wants is for someone to get hurt trying to remove fallen trees from their own yard,” Lee said. “We have a long-standing positive relationship with Bartlett Tree Experts. They understand our vision for maintaining and preserving our tree canopy.”

Lee said she also asked the City about trees and branches in the right away for residents who can’t make it to the brush pile outside of town. If it’s from a City tree, again, call 311 for help removing the branches and debris.

Lee reached out to her City Commissioner Ruth Kelly for confirmation and Kelly emailed, “Thanks for the note. If a tree is located in the ROW and falls on residents’ property, the City is liable and responsible for the entire tree.”

“I think another interesting aspect was listening to the restaurants talk about all of a sudden having to get all these people into their kitchens. It’s about having that plan as an employer or as an employee asking your employer what to do. Just knowing what to do and having a plan. And you know, checking on elderly neighbors or those who might have special needs,” Lee said.

And as a parent Lee added, “And knowing your kids’ school emergency management plan is a good idea. Having that list of numbers, knowing who to call.”

Lee concluded, “Extreme weather will hit you wherever you are. I think we’ve lived so comfortably in Grand Rapids thinking that it’s not going to ever hit the city. We think it won’t hit downtown. But it will hit you wherever you are.”

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