Putting down roots
Officials hope weather cooperates with massive tree-planting effort this weekend
GIFFORD — The trees are being delivered, the heavy equipment has been arranged, the crews have their assignments and all systems are a go — almost — for Saturday's mass tree-planting in tornado-raked Gifford.
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The weather could be a problem — the National Weather Service said Tuesday that 2 to 4 inches of rain could fall on parts of central Illinois over the next three days — but what else would you expect in town that lost dozens of homes to a November tornado and then endured one of the coldest winters on record?
Volunteers working Saturday should expect muddy conditions, said Brad Uken, manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau and volunteer coordinator for the "Let's Get Growing Again" event.
"Bill Malone and I were talking about the forecast calling for a lot of rain," Uken said of his discussions with the Champaign horticulturalist who has ordered the 235 trees to be planted Saturday. "I said to him, 'Bill, we're going to get asked a million times, if it rains are we a go?'
"We talked about it and said this project is a go for Saturday morning unless we've got standing water in town. We may consider it. But if it's raining a little bit on Saturday, we're going to do it. If it's muddy, you'd just better not wear your best pair of shoes or your best blue jeans. I can almost guarantee you that by the end of your shift Saturday, you're going to be covered in mud.
"We're going to do this and we're going to make it work."
Saturday's forecast is an improvement, though: sunny skies with a high around 50 degrees.
Uken said he has more than 125 people signed up for various tasks Saturday.
"We've heard from a lot of Rotarians in Champaign, Rantoul, the Piatt County Rotary Club, the Interact (high school) students from Rantoul, people from the Mahomet Lions Club and all the Farm Bureau folks," he said. "Plus, there are a few individuals who have called and we've said: We'll put you on the list."
WGN Radio in Chicago promoted the event last weekend, and one Chicago-area woman said she learned about it watching TV news and wanted to come to Gifford to work.
"This project has gone far and wide," Uken said.
The trees, from two local nurseries, were to be delivered to Gifford on Tuesday and today, he said. On Friday, crews will distribute each of the trees to individual lots in the northeast Champaign County town of about 900 people.
At 7:30 a.m. Saturday, five two-person crews will begin digging holes with 36-inch augers for each tree to be planted.
"That's all that crew is going to do is plow through Gifford and dig a lot of holes," Uken said. "That's the first wave of crews that runs through town. Next comes the planting crew. They'll set the tree in the hole, put the dirt around it and give it its first drink of water. Those people start at 9 a.m. There's a gap in there to let the diggers get going. I can't let those guys get behind because that just screws up the people behind them."
Another planting crew comes on at 12:30 p.m., and they'll be followed by a mulching crew that will shovel and rake mulch around the trees and tie them to wood stakes.
"I have virtually all of my slots filled, and I'm probably at between 125 and 150 volunteers to do all of that," Uken said. "I know that there are people who still want to help. But we've been very strict with people that you just don't show up and we'll put you someplace. No, that is unacceptable. People have to call and go through me because they can't just show up with a carload of people and say we're here to work. Sitting here today, I don't have a spot for them."
Those interested in volunteering Saturday should call Uken at 217-352-5235.
"I'm confident it's going to work. I'm super confident that we're going to walk out of Gifford on Saturday night and there's going to be 200-some trees planted, and it's going to be a step in the right direction for that community and the individuals," he said.
The Farm Bureau and Rotary Clubs provided more than $30,000 to pay for the trees. They'll be given free of charge to property owners in Gifford and in rural areas of the county that suffered damage in the Nov. 17 tornado.