On August 10, 2020, shortly after noon, Cedar Rapids, Iowa was hit with a category 4 inland hurricane know as a “derecho: a line of intense, widespread, and fast-moving windstorms and sometimes thunderstorms that moves across a great distance and is characterized by damaging winds.” The storm came with little to no notice. It began in Eastern Nebraska, picked up speed, peeked over Cedar Rapids, dissipating as it continued through Illinois and into Indiana. Wind speeds in Cedar Rapids were clocked at upwards of 140 mph. The storm raged on for 45 minutes.
I was notified by family in Des Moines, about 120 miles to our west, that a storm was coming and that it will be bad. They had just experienced 70 mph winds. We watched the radar as we hadn’t had rain in weeks and were hoping for a good soaking. Within minutes of being notified, the sky darkened, and the emergency sirens sounded. The power went out and as winds increased, I proceeded to the basement to take shelter as we have done so many times living in the Midwest.
My husband, intrigued by the storm, was doing exactly what we are always told not to do, standing at the window taking video of the dramatic winds. With my frantic encouragement, he finally joined me in the basement. The sound, not like a train, as they always say during a tornado. It was an intense undulating forceful whooshing, pushing and pulling, inundated with the sounds of limbs cracking and clunking to the ground and against the house. Suddenly a large branch shot through a basement window, leaving us wide-eyed and shaken.
In the midst of the storm, the Executive Director of Family Promise of Linn County called me, the board president, to tell me that he wouldn’t be working the rest of the day as the chimney on his house had fallen as well as other unforeseen damages. I was taken by his dedication to let me know this while the storm was still raging outside.
Throughout the remainder of the day, the air was filled with constant sounds of sirens from emergency vehicles. In the days to follow sounds of generators and chainsaws joined in. We were all in recovery mode together. Neighbors gathered to tell their tales and assess one another’s damage. No one escaped the effects of this storm. Several resources like gasoline, ice, and charcoal were scarce. The traffic to cities both north and south of Cedar Rapids was bumper to bumper with people trying to locate supplies.
Day 3 without power.
It was time to throw out food from the refrigerator and freezer. At that point, we had salvaged a few items and were living out of coolers. Realizing that the downed power lines that were tangled in the branches were not live, we finally set out to remove as many branches that we could manage with our hand saw to be hauled to the curb for city debris removal. Long sweaty days of dirty, manual labor followed by nights and mornings of soreness was our new short-term reality.
Our story was typical for everyone in a 75 x 75-mile area. As news spread via our generator charged devices, we learned of the extent of the devastation. A church building was only half standing. A bicyclist was killed by a falling tree. I was particularly struck by the number of low-income apartment buildings where roofs and walls were torn off. It was reported that there were around 2,000 people displaced by the storm, 1,200 of which are refugees. Tent cities formed outside the damaged buildings and others used their vehicles for shelter. Ten days after the storm, our power is finally restored. Thirty-one days and counting with no internet. They are telling us that it will be restored in the next 10 days.
Everyone Lends a Hand.
As the board president of a non-profit that provides hospitality to families experiencing homelessness, I knew we had to put our wheels in motion. With the core of our mission being a shelter system that relies on a network of faith communities providing shelter, meals, and volunteer services, having been put on hold due to the coronavirus, we were forced to look at other ways to help. We had recently added prevention, diversion, and stabilization to our program, providing financial assistance and case management to help to keep families in their homes and from experiencing homelessness.
With many of our volunteer coordinators and board members without power and internet, we were still able to bring together a group on a Zoom meeting to brainstorm our approach to helping storm victims. We concluded that our best route would be to assess needs and provide supplies to help serve the food stations that had sprung up around town.
The day after our meeting we had a phone call from a representative for a group of people from Bettendorf, a town about 85 miles to our east. They had collected $3,000 to purchased supplies and were looking for a non-profit who could distribute them. We had heard that neighboring rural communities were also hit hard by the storm and were not getting attention or aid. We were able to distribute some of the supplies and food donations in the town of Shellsburg. In Cedar Rapids, items like charcoal, chips and bottled water were donated to a generous restaurateur who owns a small BBQ “shack” and provided free meals to hundreds every day for weeks after the storm.
A month later in Cedar Rapids, a drive through town reveals great damage. Our horizon has changed for decades to come with trees stripped from the landscape. Tree and household debris line the curbside waiting for pick up. Some piles reaching seven feet high. Roofs have been tarped, while owners wait for insurance checks and available roofers. Some will have to wait until spring. There are homes with large trees resting on caved-in roofs and the occasional smashed vehicle, waiting to be towed away. There are homes and businesses that are beyond repair. It will take us a long time to put things back together in Cedar Rapids.
Many people were struggling before the derecho hit. Some were starting new lives in a new country and some had lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Our hearts go out to those who have now lost their homes due to the derecho. Family Promise of Linn County is committed to identifying those whose homes were lost and are working together with other area agencies, bringing our resources together to continue to help those most vulnerable find stability.
Family Promise of Linn County
Cedar Rapids, IA