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Storm damage, emerald ash borer add urgency for group hoping to expand Omaha's tree cover
  • Updated

When Michelle Foss would talk to people about a community forest plan, they’d often ask, “What do we need that for? We’re doing just fine.’’

Then came the relentless march of the emerald ash borer and this summer’s violent windstorm that decimated parts of the city’s tree canopy.

So far, 6,663 ash trees have been removed across the city of Omaha because of the borer, with more than twice that still scheduled for removal.

Tree losses from the July windstorm aren’t quite so clear cut because no one compiles damage estimates for private property. But Matthew Kalcevich, Omaha’s director of parks, recreation and public property, said his staff compares this year’s damage to the tornado and windstorm that struck parts of the Omaha area in 2008.

LILY SMITH, THE WORLD-HERALD 

A large tree lies broken in Elmwood Park after the July wind storm. 

To paint a picture, he said the City of Omaha has removed more than 800 trees from parks and golf courses because of the storm.

“There are also over 150 non-storm or ash-related removals needing done throughout Omaha as well,” Kalcevich said. “This storm also significantly delayed our mowing, general park maintenance and code enforcement operations for more than a month, putting us behind on many projects this summer that we are working to catch up on now.”

Matthew Kalcevich

The blows to the city’s tree canopy have created more urgency for a group that is working to develop a community forest plan.

“The loss of trees, especially this summer with the storm, has made our work more important and all the more timely,” said Foss, director of resource stewardship at Fontenelle Forest. “People are noticing that trees are an important part of any community.”

Michelle Foss

The working group, made up of nonprofits, various city officials and other entities such as the Omaha Public Power District, is trying to create a toolbox for local governments and organizations to enhance the Omaha area’s urban forest and green infrastructure. The effort is just one branch of the natural resources committee, part of MAPA Heartland 2050’s goal to create a more livable and vibrant metro area.

Foss hopes that publicity surrounding the tree losses will encourage residents to learn more about the challenges facing her group’s effort.

They’re seeking input from residents on their goal of an urban area: a 30% tree canopy by 2030, with diversity in species, genetics and age. In other words, when doing an aerial survey, 30% of the city would be covered by trees.

Go to heartland2050.org/action-plan/natural-resources/community-forest-plan/ to take their survey.

ANNA REED, THE WORLD-HERALD 

A tree at Adams Park at sunrise. It’s not just that trees provide shade. They improve property values, enhance experiences in shopping areas, help with storm runoff and air quality, and are key to fighting climate change.

It’s not just that trees provide shade, said Graham Herbst, a community forester for the Nebraska Forest Service. They improve property values, enhance experiences in shopping areas, help with storm runoff and air quality and are key to fighting climate change.

Plus, we just like them.

“We have an innate desire to be in and around trees,” Herbst said, “The thing about trees, these benefits all add up to be something significant. They are the lungs of our planet.”

ANDY LACHANCE 

Graham Herbst, community forester specialist for the Nebraska Forest Service, estimates the city has a 20% tree canopy.

Herbst estimates that the Omaha area has a 20% tree canopy. Finding the exact number is one of the goals of the community forest plan working group, so it can better assess its next steps. The group has been receiving input from groups such as the Bellevue Tree Board and the Douglas County Parks Division, but consolidating and digitizing that information has been a slow process. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped.

Though planting more trees seems like an easy solution to growing a larger canopy, it’s not always that simple. For many, buying a tree is expensive. People sometimes shy away from some of the larger species such as oak and sycamore because the cost of trimming and removing can be prohibitive.

But while ornamental trees have become increasingly popular and are more easily managed, diversity is important so that the metro area can more easily withstand the loss of a species such as ash or the once-popular silver maple, which often is a victim of high winds.

ANNA REED, THE WORLD-HERALD 

The sun rises over the trees of Adams Park in Omaha. More than 500 trees will be lost in city parks due to the July 9-10 wind storm.

KEEP OMAHA BEAUTIFUL 

Chris Stratman

After the storm damage, though, there is incredible interest in planting trees, said Keep Omaha Beautiful Executive Director Chris Stratman.

“We’ve seen an uptick in interest for sure,’’ he said.

However, responsibility for tree planting shouldn’t rest solely on homeowners, Herbst said, though it’s a very important part of growing the tree canopy.

“I just suspect many of the gains in canopy would be in untraditional settings,” he said. “Not where people think of right off the bat.”

He’s speaking of commercial and rental properties and more economically challenged neighborhoods.

ANNA REED, THE WORLD-HERALD 

The sun rises over the trees of Adams Park. Some Omaha parks were hit especially hard by the July 9-10 wind storm.

Kalcevich said the city is working with businesses and organizations through its volunteer in parks program. Several are helping the city plant trees. Keep Omaha Beautiful, the Arbor Day Foundation and the Omaha Parks Foundation are among the bigger players.

“They are contributing their time and effort to making our public spaces better and more sustainable,” Kalcevich said. “We invite anyone looking to contribute to reach out to us to get involved.’’

The Urban Bird and Nature Alliance, the American Reforestation Initiative and Green Bellevue also are involved in tree planting.

Foss said her group would like to work with the city and other organizations to figure out a plan to grow the canopy, where to plant trees and what the area’s goals are heading to 2030. Right trees, right place and right way, she calls it.

“We are hoping to provide some help for people looking to make the Council Bluffs-Omaha area a better place,” she said.



State-and-regional
AP
Allegations of sex assault at UNL started wave of protests on campuses across US
  • Updated

TOPEKA, Kan. — Reported sexual assaults have sparked large protests on college campuses in at least eight states just weeks into the new school year, which advocates say reflects both a greater vulnerability among students who spent last school year learning remotely and a greater ability among young people to make themselves heard on the issue.

Such protests aren’t new, but there seems to have been an unusually large number already this semester, with demonstrations over the past month at schools in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Alabama, Michigan, Massachusetts, Illinois and Missouri. Protesters have accused their schools of doing too little to protect students and being too lenient on the accused.

Those pushing for tougher measures against sexual violence also say the protests are being led by students familiar with the #MeToo movement and cases like that of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby. And they say a protest on one campus inspires them on others.

“It is this national push that we’re starting to see for accountability of colleges,” said Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, a nonprofit focused on building a movement to combat sexual violence on campuses.

More than half of sexual assaults against students occur between the start of fall classes and the Thanksgiving break, and generally freshmen and transfer students are the most vulnerable to sexual assault because they aren’t familiar with the campuses and haven’t solidified their social networks. Victims’ advocates call the period “the red zone.”

“We’re in a period of a double red zone,” said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, who also directs its efforts to provide justice for assault survivors. “We have the first-year students and the second-year students who are now being on campus for the first time.”

The wave of protests started after a student reported being sexually assaulted at a University Nebraska-Lincoln fraternity house just before midnight Aug. 24. Police received a separate report about a “wild party” there.

The following night, about 1,000 protesters surrounded the fraternity house. Police are investigating the assault report, and UNL temporarily suspended the fraternity’s operations as it reviews the group’s conduct.

Protests at the University of Iowa began less than a week later against a chapter of the same fraternity over a year-old allegation of sexual assault that authorities are still investigating.

In Kansas, students protested at the University of Kansas, Wichita State University and Topeka West High School in mid-September over reported assaults, and students at Auburn University in Alabama and Eastern Michigan University also held demonstrations. Protests last week included one at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

In the Chicago area, Northwestern University students organized a protest Sunday night calling on the school to “abolish Greek life” after the school issued an alert about multiple aggravated assault cases involving students “alleging they were drugged without consent” at fraternity houses.

At Central Methodist University, a small Missouri liberal arts school between Kansas City and St. Louis, about 50 students protested last week in support of Layla Beyer, a 19-year-old sophomore who said a fellow music student sexually assaulted her during the first semester of her freshman year.

The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify sexual assault victims, but Beyer allowed her name to be used.

The university said it can’t comment about an individual student’s case, but spokesperson Scott Queen said: “There will be ongoing discussions regarding the topics addressed at the protest.”

Beyer reported the assault and said she received a no-contact order against her assailant, who played the same instrument and was constantly around. But she said he repeatedly violated it without facing serious consequences.

“A lot of times, survivors don’t have anybody to stand up for them besides themselves,” Beyer said.

Administrators at other colleges have said they’re committed to helping victims and educating students about appropriate behavior.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green outlined plans that included expanding from two members to four a team that helps victims, and improving training and education about sexual assault.

Eastern Michigan’s new initiatives include annual training for students and separate training to encourage people to intervene if they see inappropriate behavior. It also is considering the future of a fraternity at the center of multiple sexual assault allegations.

“Students speak out, protest and take action because they want to see their institutions respond with the same level of anger, determination and commitment to keep their communities safe,” said Walter Kraft, Eastern Michigan’s vice president of communications.

Vitchers said helping survivors is no longer enough. She said universities must educate students to prevent assaults and punish the perpetrators and groups fostering an environment in which sexual violence is viewed as normal or no big deal.

Older advocates said current students have better access to social media and embrace activism more readily than their predecessors. Angela Esquivel Hawkins, a Stanford University administrator and CEO of a group that helps victims’ friends and families, said students now are wiser about things such as choosing hashtags to make messages trend on Twitter.

“The more iterations of social media that come up in the future, the more that people are going to get more and more connected and more and more savvy about how to organize and be efficient in their efforts,” Hawkins said.

At the University of Iowa, 18-year-old freshman Amelia Keller and her friends turned to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to rally people to the recent protest at the school. Keller also has worked with a campus group advocating for rape victims.

“We want to be able to trust and depend upon those who claim to care about the protection of vulnerable students,” Keller said in texts to the AP. “Right now, we cannot.”

At Eastern Michigan, 18-year-old freshman Abbie Francis helped organize last week’s protest at that school and used an app to attract dozens of members within two hours to a new Sexual Assault and Rape Awareness group. Eastern Michigan students also held a protest in March.

“Everyone that I have talked to in the past few weeks has expressed that they feel extremely unsafe,” she said in an email.

At Central Methodist, Beyer said she felt forced to choose between dropping out of band or having to face her assailant frequently despite repeatedly telling administrators that he should be the one to leave. She said the administrators “completely invalidated me.”

Beyer said she lost her passion for music because of the assault and her subsequent treatment. She dropped her music education major and is now majoring in psychology instead.

“You get to the point where, no one’s hearing you and nobody’s doing anything for you,” Beyer said. “Having students, especially ones that go to your school, to be by your side and stand up for you, it means a lot.”

This report includes material from the Chicago Tribune.


Health-med-fit
COVID hospitalizations rise while case growth slows in Nebraska
  • Updated

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 rose again last week in Nebraska, while new cases were down slightly from two weeks ago.

The average daily number of Nebraskans hospitalized with COVID-19 over the last week was about 420, up 5% from an average of 400 the previous week, according to a World-Herald analysis of data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rising hospitalizations, which have stretched some hospitals in the state to their limits, last week prompted Gov. Pete Ricketts to reinstate a version of the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard that focuses on hospital capacity.

While the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the state is less than half the number cared for during November’s peak, hospitals went into this summer’s surge with more patients being treated for other conditions.

Another difference, said Dr. James Lawler, co-executive director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, is that health care workers have already gone through a difficult 18 months. A lot of highly experienced nurses have left their posts, leaving less-experienced ones to staff critical care units.

“The mental health and resilience of our health care workers is not what it was last fall,” he said. “People could help by getting vaccinated and reducing the number of COVID patients we have to take care of.”

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services noted Friday that vaccinations are making a significant impact in the state. Since mid-August, according to the agency, people who were not fully vaccinated were six times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 4, HHS said, some 92% of infections, 94% of hospitalizations and 95% of deaths have occurred among people who were not fully vaccinated.

Deaths, which lag hospitalizations, also appear to be trending up. Thirty-four deaths were reported last week, double the previous week’s number and the highest weekly figure since April. But deaths can be difficult to track because the state tends to report them to the CDC in batches.

A total of 4,688 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the state in the week ending Thursday.

As of Sunday, according to the state dashboard, Nebraska had recorded 263,783 cases of COVID-19 and 2,408 deaths related to the virus.

Overall, the pandemic has become more localized, with about half of states seeing increased cases and half with falling cases.

While Southern states led the huge delta variant surge this summer, the highest case rates last week were scattered all over the country: Alaska, West Virginia, Wyoming, Montana and Kentucky.

In fact, neighboring Iowa is seeing some of the nation’s highest case growth, currently ranking 12th nationally in new weekly cases per capita. Nebraska ranks only 33rd on that measure, with a rate slightly below the national one.

Lawler, the UNMC pandemic expert, said Nebraska may be seeing an overall decrease in cases. But he thinks that the epicenter of the outbreak is shifting to rural areas of Nebraska where testing is not readily available.

Even in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, access to testing isn’t what it was earlier in the pandemic, he said, leaving hospitalizations the most reliable indicator of disease activity.

The restored state dashboard supports an outbreak shift.

Douglas County’s per capita case count over the past two weeks was more than 20% below the state rate of 435 new cases per 100,000 residents. Populous Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, likewise, came in well below the statewide rate. But several rural Nebraska counties — Valley, McPherson, Frontier and Wheeler — had per capita case counts two to three times the state rate, according to the state dashboard.

Many counties in western Nebraska have vaccinated fewer than 50% of residents 12 and older. In some, vaccination rates are significantly lower — as low as 18% in at least two counties. That compares with 72%, 71% and 69% of Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy County residents 12 and older who are fully vaccinated.

The country as a whole, Lawler said, is seeing similar shifts.

“I think we’re going to see ups and downs and high levels of disease activity for many weeks forward,” he said. “It’s moving to places that haven’t experienced a big delta wave yet.”

Lawler thinks that many areas of the country will continue to see high COVID-19 activity into late fall and early winter.

“The pandemic has not gone away,” he said. “It’s still putting our hospitals under tremendous strain. The path out hasn’t changed — it’s vaccination first of all and continuing to implement (preventative measures) until we can reach an appropriate level of vaccination.”

Overall, 54.4% of Nebraskans are fully vaccinated, slightly below the national number of 55.3%.

To encourage vaccination, the Douglas County Health Department announced Monday that people can make appointments to have the shots brought to their homes, as the Health Department has been doing for homebound residents. To get on the list for a home appointment, call 402-444-3400 between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.



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