On the night of Dec. 26, 2015, nine tornadoes ripped through Dallas' eastern suburbs and leveled houses and schools, overturned vehicles and uprooted half-century old trees. In the hardest hit areas, Garland and Rowlett, parts of communities were destroyed, 13 people were killed and thousands of homes were damaged. This weekend, hundreds of volunteers from all over Texas and the U.S. are expected to gather, a year after the disaster, to plant nearly 250 trees at more than a hundred homes in Rowlett that were damaged or leveled by the tornadoes.
Enter Grady McGahan; he's the founder of Retreet — stylized RETREET — a tree-planting organization. McGahan started the nonprofit five years ago after seeing an under-served niche when it comes to disaster rebuilding.
“Most people see a need for toiletries, blankets and food, and all the help is geared toward getting the situation stabilized. And then the insurance company, the government and FEMA, and whoever else takes over reconstruction,” McGahan says. “There's no organization or agency that's looking at the loss of trees in a community and saying this is a really important part of what living in a neighborhood means.
"Residents are realizing the insurance company isn’t going to replant any of these big trees, which will take the longest to replace because it takes 50 years, 80 years to grow trees that big. That's a hard pill to swallow. … On a macro level, we're redefining what disaster relief means to people.”
McGahan insists that trees are not only ecologically necessary for carbon reduction, preventing soil erosion, reducing energy costs — and in extreme cases, preventing mudslides — but trees are also integral to a community’s sense of place.
“These places are trying to feel like home again, they're trying to restore some sense of normalcy, and that's impossible to do when you're living in a barren landscape,” McGahan says. “[With] my house, if this was all destroyed, I could build a brand new house on this hill, I’d have a brand new car and stuff, but I wouldn't have this wooded lot. This whole neighborhood is defined by these trees — a lot of people don’t get it until they're in a disaster situation.”
It’s nearly impossible to put a price on replacing an 80-year-old tree that’s been destroyed by a natural disaster, mostly because you can’t buy the time it takes to grow a tree to that age, but some estimates put a value as high as $100,000.
Retreet has managed to plant nearly 5,000 trees sized 10 to 15 gallons across North America that are approximately 8 feet tall and cost around $75 a pop, which isn’t the same as an 80-year-old tree but goes a long way to helping rebuild a neighborhood.
“For people to set aside their weekend to come help plant these wonderful trees is such a blessing to us! The trees are already putting out their green chutes [sic] and we couldn't be prouder having them! ... It is amazing to see such love come from so many places and they all gathered in one community to plant not just trees but love and compassion and caring,” said Britta Franklin of Bastrop, a recipient who reviewed the organization on its Facebook page.
And Connie Sullivan, mayor of Lyons, Colorado, wrote, “Lyons is still deeply immersed in flood recovery and seeing trees being planted, and volunteer groups enjoying themselves at our local businesses, helped our residents feel like a full recovery is near — and possible.”
McGahan has forged powerful partnerships for the organization, like with the Nature Conservancy, Whole Foods and Texas Trees Foundation, among a long list of others. The Home Depot Foundation has donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of trees and supplies for many of the Retreets, which have taken place all across Texas, Missouri, Colorado, New York and Canada. Just last month Retreet was in Oklahoma City, planting trees after a tornado that hit in 2013. And they usually revisit each site to plant more trees – often on the anniversary of their first visit.
A daylong planting expedition Saturday is just one of a series of events on the Rowlett Retreet calendar. The crew of Retreeters toured Dallas on bicycle Friday morning, followed by a welcome dinner that evening and a second bike ride on Saturday morning to kick off the planting, and a seed-bomb hike on Sunday. The full schedule of events can be found here.
Bike riding is another important aspect of Retreet culture. McGahan says cyclists tend to be active, which is helpful where manual labor for planting trees is concerned, and they’re often environmentally conscious too, opting to ride a bicycle instead of a taking a car to get around.
“When you're on a bicycle you can understand the topography and the people in the community,” McGahan says. “On bicycles, it allows for a more exploratory experience. We're stopping at a little German bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, we're stopping and talking to people who wave at us.”
The community outreach upon which Retreet is founded started on Thursday evening at the Texas Theatre. Retreet hosted a film screening of the documentary Can You Dig This? featuring Ron Finley, also known as the Gangsta Gardener, who works with residents of South Central L.A. on planting their own food.
Documentary filmmaking is how Retreet came about. A graduate of Georgetown University with a bachelor’s in English, McGahan worked for many years in New York on documentaries for filmmakers such as Michael Moore. He opened his own production studio and started making documentaries about environmentally conscious organizations, which usually involved trees or bicycling.
“You film all the footage and then watch it for three months while you're editing it, so I had a lot of time to marinate on all of this,” McGahan says. “The whole point of these movies was to convince people to join these causes, and over time I convinced myself that if it was going to be a successful film, that I should be involved.”
He then took an around-the-world trip for 18 months and on his way back to Dallas, his hometown, he was thinking about the takeaway message he could derive from everything he experienced.
“I realized happiness comes through fulfillment, waking up and feeling positive about your situation and what you're doing every day,” McGahan says. “I saw people on all ends of the spectrum, in all these different countries, living all these different kinds of lives, and it appeared to me that the people who were fulfilled were the people who felt like the work that they did benefited their community, and they were appreciated by those people for the contribution. I was like, OK, I want to do that here.”
But his impact has much further reaches than Dallas. McGahan says Retreet is the only organization of its kind.
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“We operate on a national sphere. I go to a lot of environmental conferences and talk to people about what we do, and when I tell people we're from Dallas, it quite honestly blows their minds,” McGahan says. “They’re surprised we’re not from Austin, Denver or New York. We're redefining what Dallas means to people.”
Anyone who was affected by the disaster in Rowlett was invited to apply for a tree through Retreet’s website. Registration is now closed, but McGahan says there will be more opportunities for residents who may have missed the deadline this time around.
Although the organization has serviced locations as far away as Ontario, McGahan is looking forward to this Retreet specifically, saying it’s “a big deal” to be closing in on the organization’s five-year anniversary by planting trees close to home.
“We're excited to be able to provide this service locally in a way that helps our neighbors,” McGahan says. “People get out there to help and they see how much these trees matter to the residents. No economic or political or racial background comes into play. It creates this really safe space where we can all interact and positively impact the community emotionally, psychologically, financially and environmentally.”