Retreet: An Organization Dedicated to Helping Natural Disaster Survivors Feel At Home Again, through Trees

 

It had been a terrible year for Texas trees.

A severe drought in 2011 had led to disastrous conditions across the state. Texas had received its lowest single-year rainfall since 1895 and had its hottest summer ever recorded. The Texas A&M Forest Service estimated that the drought conditions, diseases and infestations killed more than 305 million trees across the state.

But the year’s perfect storm didn’t happen until summer was nearly over: Tropical Storm Lee blew in through the coast on Labor Day weekend, sending strong winds all through Texas Hill Country. The strong winds and high heat combined to start a total of 63 wildfires across the state. The wildfires ravaged Bastrop State Park and Lost Pines Forest; smoke filled the sky in Austin, 30 miles away. The wildfires killed two people, destroyed 1,673 homes homes and created an estimated $325 million in property damage. It took 55 days to completely extinguish the fires; the Texas Forest Service put out a statement stating that “no one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions.”

While the wildfires made national news headlines early on, media coverage of the disaster inevitably waned as residents and community members moved into recovery mode. Over the course of months, residents moved on as best they could, rebuilding lives and houses.

But there was no local, state or national organization focused on replacing the trees lost due to natural disaster. This is a nationwide problem, as every natural disaster — whether it’s a fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane or tornado — results in tree deaths.

“Out of everything that is lost, it’s the trees that are going to take the longest to replace because you can’t rebuild them.”
— Grady McGahan, RETREET Executive Director

Dallas native Grady McGahan had been following the story of the wildfires. A cycling enthusiast and documentary filmmaker, he’d been planning on cycling through the Hill Country with friends — but he was also looking for a job after moving back to the area from a period of time travelling and working abroad. He wanted to get into project and event management, but knew he’d need more than a resume to standout for employers. He wanted to create an event — something that would capture people’s attention and promote the causes he cared about.

“I thought, we should ride through Bastrop and while we are there, we can plant some trees for people who are rebuilding because they’d probably definitely like to have some trees,” McGahan said, adding that marrying cyclists with tree planting “just made sense.”

Of course, the logistics of such an endeavor weren’t all that simple. McGahan needed to source the trees, figure out where to plant them, move the trees to the site, figure out who would get the trees. The group put an ad in the local Bastrop paper to gage interest and gain stakeholders.

“We basically just told people we’re a bunch of cyclists, arborists and people who are interested in trees, and we’re going to bring trees down to Bastrop and plant them for anybody who wants trees, so if you want trees, send us an email,” McGahan said. “We got an overwhelming response from the community. We had not only residents calling to ask for trees, but the local arborists wanted to be involved, plant shops, nurseries, mulch providers, composters — it was just a groundswell of support and interest in the project, both in supporting it and receiving the benefits of it.”

And that was the birth of Retreet, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping communities devastated by natural disasters replace and replant their lost trees.

“We decided as an organization we needed to create this campaign to make replanting trees during the recovery period part of the disaster relief picture.”

“There is no system that kicks into place to replant trees for people who have lost them, the same way there is for replacing cars and homes and infrastructure, pipes and roads. And out of everything that is lost, it’s the trees that are going to take the longest to replace because you can’t rebuild them. You have to plant a tree and wait for 20 or 30 or 70 years for it to be big,” McGahan said. “We decided as an organization we needed to create this campaign to make replanting trees during the recovery period part of the disaster relief picture.”

Retreets are weekend-long events in which volunteers visit an impacted area, plant trees, ride bikes, attend local events and host celebrations. In other words, they are volunteer-based vacations for cyclists — but the group welcomes non-cyclists, too, as well as sponsors and partners. Local buy-in is essential for Retreets to happen.

“We want everyone to be involved in the way that they can best be involved and do the things that they are best at doing. We are almost the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor of the orchestra doesn’t actually play any instruments, he waves the baton and all the people in the orchestra are fantastic at playing their instrument. So to make this symphony, Retreet is the conductor and we are looking for all those musicians locally who can play those instruments the best,” McGahan said. “We’re not trying to be a one-man band. Through partnerships, we wind up with this whole coalition of people who all have this vested interest.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP:

For Free: Vote for Retreet in the Reliant Gives $100,000 contest, as Retreet is one of three finalists in the running for the grand prize. Voting is easy and does not require signing up or giving away any information. People can vote multiple times each and every day until the winner is announced May 13.

Donate: Via the Retreet website.

Follow: Learn more by Liking Retreet on Facebook.


THE FIRST RETREET took place in January 2012 in Bastrop, when more than 50 volunteers helped plant 220 trees in more than 35 yards.

“It was really exciting and very complicated. I didn’t sleep the night before,” McGahan said. “We actually rode bikes to every homesite, along with this huge army of people and trucks and trailers full of trees and mulch and compost and water. It was a massive entourage going from home to home, figuring out where the trees would go. At that point, we were planting all the trees we could get our hands on. People were crying when they received the trees, and the volunteers had such a meaningful time interacting with the disaster survivors.”

Volunteers at a Retreet in Bastrop. Photo from www.retreet.org. 

Volunteers at a Retreet in Bastrop. Photo from www.retreet.org. 

Since then, Retreet has held tree-planting events across the country: in Lancaster, Texas, following a 2012 tornado that destroyed 300 homes; in Wimberley, Texas, following the Bastrop River flooding in 2015 that destroyed 320 homes; in Joplin, Missouri, following the 2012 vortex tornado that destroyed 2,000 buildings; in Ontario, Canada, following the Gerich EF3 tornado; in Colorado, following a wildfire and a flood; in New York, after Hurricane Sandy; and in Oklahoma City, following the Moore EF5 tornado that destroyed 1,150 homes and 4,000 trees.

“We’ve perfected our model to the point where everything is laid out ahead of time. Arborists meet with each participant and decide where the trees are going to go before volunteers get there. The utilities are all marked, we do planting demonstrations, the trees are all being natively sourced,” McGahan said, adding that, with logistics already taken care of, the Retreet weekends can focus on community-building and having a good time. “We do a series of events that will include a bike ride, we’ll do multiple community dinners. We’ll invite the people who we are planting trees for to come out and have dinner with us the night after the plantings so we can all be together. We’re going to do things locally that plug us into the scene and give us a really good understanding of the geography and the people there, whether that’s going on a historic tour of the town or riding a bicycle through the state park or visiting a local brewery. So it’s multiple days of festivities that center around getting to know this place we know these people and leaving our mark.”

Retreeters celebrating a planting in Joplin, Missouri. Photo from www.retreet.org.

Retreeters celebrating a planting in Joplin, Missouri. Photo from www.retreet.org.

Retreet often returns to areas year after year to plant more trees; future Retreets are planned for Colorado and Oklahoma City. For volunteers, returning to the places they’ve gotten to know and help makes being involved even more worthwhile, as they get to see the long-term benefits of their actions.

“You have this opportunity to go down and physically help people whose lives have been uprooted. By planting trees, you help them re-establish their environmental identity and bring them some psychological relief and hope in the form of living things that are coming back to the area. And you can come back in 30 years and see that and it will have gained in value over time. You can give something that’s going to have permanence and lasting and increasing value,” McGahan said.

For residents living in the area, having aid come in after other volunteers and news organizations have long-since left can provide real, emotional and psychological benefits that aren’t possible in the immediate chaotic and traumatic aftermath of a disaster.

“The way that disaster stories are told to us in the news is all about the initial terribleness — it’s breaking news, excitement and intensity, pain and frustration. The recovery phase doesn’t stay in the news, so people don’t think about the recovery phase. We think everyone who has died has died and everything that’s been destroyed has been destroyed and now the insurance companies and the government are going to step in and rebuild everything, and that’s not an interesting story anymore,” McGahan said, adding that his experiences with Retreet have taught him otherwise. “Disasters don’t happen in a day. Disasters happen over time.”

It takes months and years for survivors to assess and accept losses, work with relief agencies, recover possessions, rebuild homes and overcome the emotional tolls of a disaster. Life gets harder before it gets easier. Survivors commonly go through significant periods of grief, anger, depression and hopelessness that may snowball into bigger problems. Relationships suffer, financial support systems become stressed and home isn’t home anymore.

“I met a woman who moved down to Bastrop with her husband. They built a log cabin in the woods and were going to grow old and die there together. He passed away and then three months later, the fire happens and burns everything down to the ground. Now this woman is living in a FEMA trailer on a burned out piece of property waiting to die by herself, and she is upset about it. Another woman for whom we planted trees, her husband fought to save their house. He saved it, but lost all the trees around the house. Within six months of the fire, he killed himself,” McGahan said.

Survivors helped by Retreet often have emotional, long-term connections to their lost trees, or trees that played significant roles in their day-to-day lives: a red bud in the front yard they’ve admired every summer for the last two decades; a tree they planted for a deceased family member or the birth of a child. That connection to trees is true at the community level, too.

“A sense of place is really important in a community. That environmental identity is what everybody in the community has in common. Everybody thinks differently, everybody believes differently, everybody is a different person in the way they see the world, but they all look around and see the same landscape and they all identify as being from the same place. When that landscape becomes immediately unfamiliar, then the community identity that was shared through the environment is no longer the same and everybody is looking at it differently now,” McGahan said. “It’s such a psychological healing for these people when you bring living things back into their community and it’s not just a devastated landscape with new buildings on it that doesn’t feel like home. People sit there and watch trees being planted and realize ‘this will be home again.’"


HOW YOU CAN HELP:

For Free: Vote for Retreet in the Reliant Gives $100,000 contest, as Retreet is one of three finalists in the running for the grand prize. Voting is easy and does not require signing up or giving away any information. People can vote multiple times each and every day until the winner is announced May 13.

Donate: Via the Retreet website.

Follow: Learn more by Liking Retreet on Facebook.