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Darkness & destruction in Iowa

My World's on Fire
Darkness & destruction in Iowa
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #15 • View online

“My World’s on Fire” is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights around policy, preparation, response, and resiliency. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
First things first – I’m writing this with one eye glued to coverage of Hurricane Laura as it prepares to make landfall. Right now, it’s forecasted to be one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit Louisiana.
By the time you receive this, we’ll certainly know a lot more about the storm, but there will also be so much still we don’t. We won’t know the full scope of the damage yet. The stories of heroism; the stories of tragedy. What I do feel safe saying at this time is that there is a long, painful road ahead of those in its path, and my heart is with those communities. This storm – not to mention the ongoing fires in my home state, California, and the event I’m talking about today – will definitely be part of my reporting moving forward, so please feel free to reach out to me on social media, in the comments, or by replying to this email about how I can help you better understand this moment.
Photo courtesy of Nick Meyer
“We still don’t have power to our home. We had to throw everything from our fridge/freezer and deep freezer. We have a 1 year old baby girl.”
I received that message, accompanied by this photo of a toppled tree fallen onto a building, on August 16th, six days after a powerful wind storm known as a derecho (“deh-REY-cho”) tore across the state of Iowa. I’d tweeted about it after reading some of the coverage of the potentially record-breaking winds and the hundreds of thousands left for days without power.
Nick Meyer, a Cedar Rapids resident, responded.
The day before the storm, which came with little warning for those in its path, he’d gone grocery shopping for his family – his young daughter, wife, and two boxer pups.
By the time we spoke one week later, those groceries had long since spoiled. His house, damaged by the high winds and falling trees, was a steamy 80-degrees after days without electricity. His daughter, who was just starting to walk, was staying with her grandparents – “as much as kills us inside, we’re doing what’s best for her.” His dogs were with friends.
Nick and his wife were paying out of pocket to stay in a hotel, one of the many costs that seemingly kept piling up. The tree damage costs alone had been over $5,000; there was no word from his insurance company. Plus, Nick’s place of employment had been destroyed in the storm, and he was now out of a job.
“I’ve been doing everything I can to stay strong for my wife/family but I hit a breaking point last, as many Cedar Rapidians have,” he wrote to me. “We drove around some of our city yesterday and I couldn’t help but cry the whole time.”
According to reporter Rebecca Kopelman, 80-90% of all properties in Cedar Rapids were damaged. The city, which has a tree as its logo, lost half its tree canopy.
And that’s just Cedar Rapids. The August 10th storm covered a 770 mile stretch from South Dakota to Ohio over the course of 14 hours, with winds surpassing 100 mph at points – equivalent to a major hurricane. One Iowan described the sound during the storm as “emphasized.”
Photo courtesy of weather.gov
At least four people were killed. Homes, buildings, farming equipment, cars, trees – nearly anything outside was fair game for the winds, which left structures twisted and mangled.
Around half a million residents like Nick were without electricity for days. 14 million acres of farmland were impacted in the state, damage significant enough that it could be seen from space. The recovery costs will be in the billions.
When I asked Nick about the help available at that moment, he responded that, “it’s a lot of figuring out steps on our own unfortunately.”
“We are the type that never ask for help because we know someone else has it worse than us,” he added. “But….in a time like this, help is definitely needed.”
I’ve talked previously about the strain the pandemic was expected to have on disaster response, and FEMA’s full-throated defense of its ability to respond to multiple large-scale crises at once. In Iowa, it was the former that proved true.
Reporting on the government response points to procedural confusion across multiple levels. Ultimately, Governor Kim Reynolds officially asked for federal disaster relief about a week after the derecho. It was only partially approved by President Trump.
As for organizational support, a scroll through the Twitter responses from the Red Cross shows the aid agency’s “challenges.”
Dr. Samantha Montano
If I were a journalist I'd have some follow up questions. https://t.co/sFTgi5gIG5
Iowa journalist Lyz Lenz did ask – but received few answers. She described a conversation with Peter Teahen, a spokesman for the American Red Cross in Cedar Rapids for The Gazette:
“We had no ability to communicate. We couldn’t contact people. We didn’t know if buildings were safe or if they were ADA-compliant.” I asked if this work could have been done beforehand, and why there wasn’t a plan for such a scenario. He also asked me what I would suggest. And again, I pointed out, he was the expert. “I just want to know what the plan was,” I said. “People were sitting outside for days waiting for help. Senior centers went without power.” “I don’t know about that,” said Teahen.
With little institutional aid available, community networks stepped up. More than 65,000 people have joined the “Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page” Facebook group to crowdsource advice, share frustrations, and coordinate volunteer efforts. Nick started his own fundraiser on Facebook, using extra money to pay it forward and support his neighbors in need.
Of course, looming over each neighborly interaction is the threat of coronavirus. Cases in the state have seen a surge following the storm and the return of university students.
I don’t have a neat ending to this newsletter. While many Iowans like Nick have since gotten back power and are moving forward with their recovery processes, the ongoing effects are daunting, from the economic impacts to the virus, not to mention the usual pains of communities hit by natural hazards.
I’ve included another article from Lenz below about ways to help Iowans, if you’re so inclined. If you’re not able to offer financial support, I hope you’ll share some of the smart reporting I’ve linked to in this newsletter (or, hey, you can share this, too) to keep attention on Iowa, helping hold officials accountable in the ongoing recovery effort.
As Iowa reporter Beth Malicki summed it up: “The more eyes on this disaster the more help.”
More on the storm:
  • 📚How to help A list of organizations and needs (The Gazette)
  • 📷The aftermath, in photos Documenting the days after the storm in Cedar Rapids (New York Times)
  • 📚AseriesofblogsA number of Iowa residents chronicled their own derecho experiences on Medium, and I think they provide a critical view into what the storm and aftermath are like to live through (Medium)
  • 📻‘I didn’t think anyone survivedHow some of Iowa’s refugees are coping after the storm (Iowa Public Radio)
And, as always…
thank you for being a part of this community! If you found today’s dispatch interesting, please consider sharing it and spreading the word on social media.
Here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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Colleen Hagerty

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