The campus is known for its green filled environment from friendly squirrels, feral cats and lush trees growing throughout the landscape. This was not the case when the F3 tornado touched down in Montgomery County on Jan. 22, 1999.
The tornado only blew through for five minutes, but it caused massive destruction to the campus. The winds were strong enough to not only destroy 124 buildings but also uproot massive trees.
“Roughly 130 trees were uprooted on campus, and roughly 50 trees in the direct path are still here. This is from looking at Google Earth and the damage reports,” Wes Powell, Assistant Director of Landscape and Grounds said.
Powell started as a freshman seven months after the tornado hit the campus. Despite all the damages done from severe winds, up to 158-206 mph, which regularly take down well-built homes, trains and rooted trees, the campus was brought back to life very quickly.
“Truthfully, Harned still had boards on the windows and columns had to be rebuilt,” Powell said. “That’s really the only evidence that anything had happened. Within six months they had cleaned pretty much everything up.”
Twenty years have passed since various sized trees were blown from the ground, all over campus. There is a majority of greenery present in 2019, compared to when the tornado had hit. Some older generation of trees still stands today, even after such a large storm 20 years ago.
“A lot of trees were actually planted as a direct result of the tornado. Since I have been here, which is four years, we have planted over 600 trees and about 65 of those are in the direct path of the tornado,” Powell said.
The above link is a pdf of the original landscape plan to replant trees in August.
Powell described how some trees planted after the tornado could be at least 20 years old or less. However, he had no idea exactly when some of those trees were planted originally. He counted almost 260 trees that fit this category that was also in the path of the tornado.
“Some of these trees were partnered with the UC when it was built because the old UC was torn down in 2001. A lot of them were planted specifically for reconstruction, but some were planted as a direct result of the tornado,” Powell said.
Being assistant landscape director, Powell plays a large role in what campus looks like every year. He assists sometimes in tours for landscape classes on campus.
“I tell them one of the coolest things about my job is putting something here that could potentially be here in 200 years. A large change seen around campus since the tornado is just the buildings that were built as a direct result of the tornado,” Powell said.
Powell looks back on what greenery survived the storms and is amazed to see how many trees still stood after the destruction.
“The fact that those three trees I named were in the direct path and are still standing amazes me,” Powell said. “Because there were trees less than 100 feet away that are gone.”
The tornado traveled from about Browning Drive over to Archwood and when looking at the campus map, there are larger trees in darker shades, still standing from the tornado’s destruction. These are examples of the impact of the storm and showing the survival of a storm, 20 years later.
There is a true reflection of what has been rebuild by observing the growth of trees on campus in 2019.