Wed., May 8, 2013 3:24pm (EDT)

Trees Tell A Tornado's Story
By Adam Ragusea
Updated: 11 months ago

MACON, Ga.  —  
Middle Georgia State College arborist Derrick Catlett crouches by a special tree he nursed back to health following the Mother's Day tornadoes of 2008. (Photo: Erica O'Neal for GPB News)
Middle Georgia State College arborist Derrick Catlett crouches by a special tree he nursed back to health following the Mother's Day tornadoes of 2008. (Photo: Erica O'Neal for GPB News)
It’s been five years since 19 tornadoes cut across central and southern Georgia. Two people in a mobile home died in Laurens County on that Mother’s Day morning.

A direct hit also robbed what was then called Macon State College of nearly all its trees, but now the campus canopy is on the mend.

'Roots up in the air'

Trees are a big deal at what is now called the Macon campus of Middle Georgia State College. What began in the 1960s as a commuter school plopped in farm fields gradually became a showcase for all manner of native and adapted species.

The botanical gardens here were the pride of the institution, said biology professor Dawn Sherry. “Those older trees really kind of lent this air of age to a campus that is relatively new, that kind of gave us this feeling that, ‘ok, we’ve been established,’” she said.

Then came Mother’s Day, 2008. “I remember waking up, and turning on the news, and suddenly we see these photos coming in,” Sherry recalled.

The photos showed whole stands of pine trees snapped at the same height, as if by a giant lawn mower, “others bent at an angle that just didn’t even make sense,” Sherry said; trunks piercing the side of a building like spears, and “some of the big oak trees, roots up in the air. It was somewhat devastating.”

'Look at the work to do'

That same morning, campus arborist Derrick Catlett had a different reaction: “My my, look at the work, look at the work to do," he recalled thinking.

MIDDLE GEORGIA STATE COLLEGE: Before and after photos

A farm boy turned computer science and math major, Catlett got to his junior year and decided he’d rather be outside. He’d been at been working at Macon State for five years when the tornado hit. "And I was just starting to appreciate what we had,” he said.

Step one of recovery was a solid month of chipping — all that hard work and slow growth distilled into a mulch pile that’s still in use by the college and the county today. Step two was the creation of a new master plan. Administrators worked with an Atlanta landscape architect to conceptualize an even more ambitious campus-wide arboretum that Catlett is still coaxing into reality.

21st century arborist

“As we walk by this red maple, I’m gonna get my GPS unit out, update the inspection on this tree,” Catlett said as he roamed campus on a recent morning. “I take records on the growth.”

Every tree on campus also lives in a database. Catlett can stroll around, note the trees that, say, need irrigation work and email an electronic map to a contractor. And for the general public, “there’s even an application online where you could walk with your GPS running, click on the tree...and read all my database, what type of tree, when was it planted,” he said.

ArcGIS: Waddell Barnes Botanical Gardens Tree Inventory

Though some trees have special stories you won’t find there.

In memoriam

A couple years ago, Catlett brought in a worker to grind down a lot of the stumps that were still left behind after the tornado. But he had second thoughts about an oak stump that had sent up a shoot of new growth. “I knew it had a little special meaning to some few people out here,” he said; a professor donated the tree years ago in memory of a lost child.

“So we began to train one of the sprouts,” Catlett said as he looked up at what has become a trunk “every bit of 15 feet tall.” At its base, the center of the old stump is now a rotted hollow that collects rain — a tiny pool catching sunlight through a lush, but still adolescent-looking canopy.

Catlett, just 30-years-old himself, said he hopes to spend the rest of his career here and see these trees into adulthood.