When an EF5 tornado slammed into Joplin in May 2011, 161 people were killed. The tornado also knocked down thousands of buildings and destroyed more than 15,000 of the city's trees. Lack of rain is now threatening the survival of thousands of donated saplings planted to reforest Joplin. Michele Skalicky of member station KSMU reports on the effort to save them.

MICHELE SKALICKY, BYLINE: Saplings no more than six feet tall dot the landscape here in Joplin. They replace the large shade trees that were ripped out of the ground by the tornado. Nearly 7,000 new trees have been planted, donated by various organizations. They include sturdy, mostly native varieties such as oak, sycamore and redbud - trees that can withstand strong winds when they're taller. With temperatures above normal for the past few months and precipitation below normal, those trees have had a hard time of it.


SKALICKY: Volunteers, though, are giving the 562 trees planted in Joplin's city parks a hand. They pour water onto the base of the trees a little at a time, allowing it to slowly soak into the roots. One hundred, sixty-one of those saplings are in Cunningham Park, which was rebuilt after the tornado obliterated it. Each represents someone killed in the storm.

Drew Shuburte is a member of the Hayti First United Methodist Church. Volunteers on a mission trip traveled several hours to get here. They're mostly teens, and they work in groups of three or four, splashing water onto their shoes as they struggle to shuttle the buckets to the trees.

DREW SHUBURTE: It's hot, and it hurts to bend over for a long time, but these trees symbolize all the people who've died, so it's really important to me and the people who live here.

SKALICKY: Because of the efforts of Shuburte and many others, Joplin's Tree Coordinator Ric Mayer estimates only about 3 percent of the new trees in Joplin's parks have died. Tom Meyer is the manager of Carson Nurseries in Springfield. He says these trees are especially vulnerable to the drought.

TOM MEYER: Freshly-planted trees are real reliant on the human being taking care of them. They need to the water right at the root base. They can't bring in residual water from further out.

SKALICKY: That's why the volunteer effort is so important. Without it, Ric Mayer estimates more than 95 percent of the new trees would now be dead. Still, the trees continue to suffer. Brown, curled leaves on some of the trees at Cunningham Park don't discourage volunteers from continuing their effort. Callie Debretto, another member of Hayti First United Methodist Church, hopes to one day see the results of their efforts.

CALLIE DEBRETTO: We'll be able to remember how it looked like now, so if we ever come back, we'll be able to see how much it's changed and to know that we helped it.

SKALICKY: Four-fifths of the parks are replanted. Now, as they continue to rebuild, they're focusing on planting trees in residents' yards. For NPR News, I'm Michele Skalicky.

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