Derecho damages the Hilltop

With little warning on Aug. 10 a derecho with straight-line winds of over 110 mph tore through Cornell’s campus on a destructive path through the region.

derecho damage
Cornell’s northeast entrance a few hours after a powerful derecho swept through Iowa.

In its aftermath more than 150 campus trees were severely damaged or destroyed, and another 160 needed extensive top-trimming and pruning. Twenty main campus buildings sustained significant roof damage. Power was out for over four days, and with unsafe conditions on campus, the college delayed the academic year by two weeks.

Cornell’s facilities team and contractors worked overtime cleaning up and repairing everything from outdoor safety lighting to indoor mechanical systems. The full cost of the damage is still being determined.

sports center derecho damage
Twenty buildings sustained roof damage, but none worse than the Small Sport Center.

Recovering Cornell’s wooded Hilltop will take time. New trees of a variety of species will be planted over two to three years, but it will take generations for the trees to mature. An initial outpouring of concern and support resulted in the creation of a new Landscaping and Trees Fund to help Cornell restore its tree canopy. Gifts to this fund are gratefully welcomed at

Two weeks after the event more than 100 staff, students, faculty, alumni, and friends spread across campus to help clear remaining debris, hang COVID-19 signs, and spread out lobby furniture throughout campus—projects that had been delayed during derecho cleanup. Three other Iowa college facilities teams also showed up in the first weeks after the storm to help their Cornell colleagues.

Many large trees on campus were completely uprooted by the 11o mph straight-line winds of the powerful Aug. 10 derecho that swept through Iowa.

Facilities Operations Manager Luke Fischer said the college views its trees like works of art.

“Each tree is unique and beautiful on its own. It can’t be duplicated and is under constant creation,” he said.

“However, while many trees may look good from a distance, upon close inspection from arborists, many were damaged to the extent they were not safe to remain in place. We are looking at safety-first with all trees.”

The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette wrote a post-derecho story about Cornell’s storied ginkgo tree, believed to be planted in 1850. The once-mighty tree lost much of its mass, Fischer said, and a percentage of it will be trimmed each year for several years as staff continue to monitor and assess it.

Derecho damaged tree
This mighty red maple was originally tagged No. 57 of more than 150 campus trees deemed unsafe or unhealthy following the powerful Aug. 10 derecho that swept through Iowa. But once a crew began working in it, they determined it has another few decades to oversee activities next to King Chapel.

“This massive ginkgo, the largest in the state of Iowa, has proudly weathered every storm for 170 years on this Iowa Hilltop. Then to have its very existence compromised in under an hour—words can’t capture how I feel,” President Jonathan Brand told the Gazette reporter. “That said, if there is a tree that will overcome this disaster, it will definitely be our ginkgo. We treasure the beauty it brings to our campus.”

By the time classes began on Sept. 7, the campus was becoming groomed again, though lacking in the full canopy it will someday regain.

Twenty buildings sustained roof damage, but none worse than the Small Sport Center.
Many large trees on campus were completely uprooted by the 110 mph straight-line winds.