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Dire Straits And Destruction In Cedar Rapids

Monday’s powerful derecho storm wreaked havoc across the state, with communities in eastern Iowa among the hardest hit. Pounding rain, hail and hurricane force winds flattened crop land, shattered trees and devastated homes. Days in, the full extent of the damage is becoming painfully clear. For some, it’s leading to deprivation.

In Cedar Rapids, even those whose homes escaped physical damage have been left in the dark for days due to massive power outages that at one point left 97 percent of Linn County in the dark. In the days since, Cedar Rapids residents’ medical supplies like insulin and oxygen have run low, their food has rotted in their fridges, and some worry it could be weeks before their power is restored.

No insulin, no power, no car, no phone

Cheryl Barnes and her neighbor Georgia Swalley seemed to be the first people in line at a Hy-Vee food distribution event in the parking lot of the Ladd Library on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids on Thursday afternoon. They live a block away in an apartment complex that was shredded by the storm. Siding, shingles and insulation now litter the ground there.

Barnes has diabetes and says she hasn’t had a shot of insulin, a lifesaving drug for diabetics, in two days. Now she says she has nothing left to eat but bread, which she knows is driving up her blood sugar.

“I know my blood sugar has been high, so I have to be extremely careful. And it don’t help when you’re eating bread because that’s got a lot of carbs in it,” Barnes said. “But I don’t have anything that doesn’t have carbs in it to eat.”

She has no power, no internet, no phone and no car. She still has meat in her freezer but no way to cook it.

With a laugh, she said she was thinking of eating the cat food.

“It’s been bad. It really has been,” she said. “And when you’re on a limited income, what are you supposed to do?”

When asked how she would get help if something happened to her, she didn’t have much of an answer.

“I’d be in trouble,” she said. “If something was happening to me, I’d be in trouble.”

‘Try to get to power’

The power outages are so widespread and persistent in Linn County that both the county and the city of Cedar Rapids have opened shelters where residents can charge their medical equipment. That should come as a relief to Michelle Jensen and her patients. As president and CEO of CarePro home health service, she says it’s been a struggle making sure her patients get enough oxygen and the power to run their machines.

“Most oxygen patients have an oxygen concentrator. They plug that into the wall and that provides oxygen,” she said.

She has been providing oxygen tanks that patients can use, but “we’re just advising patients to try and get to power," a challenge made even more difficult by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Some patients and their families have left Cedar Rapids for hotel rooms in nearby cities, if they can.

“We’ve had some patients who’ve been…or families who were pretty…we’ve had some tears. People are like, ‘I just don’t know what to do’, ‘it’s just another hit’, ‘and my poor mom.' And two people that haven’t seen their parents maybe because of it,” She said. “Now they’re trying to take care of them and get them somewhere safe.”

‘I just don't see the response’

After spending years in Louisiana, including in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Clayton Schexnayder says the aftermath of Monday’s storm is very familiar: it looks like a hurricane. The downed trees, the outages, the spoiled food. But sitting on the porch of his apartment building in Wellington Heights Thursday morning, what he says he doesn’t get is, why isn’t there a larger governmental response?

“I just don’t see the response, like down South. I don’t understand,” Schexnayder said. “I don’t see it here.”

He and his neighbor Robin Edwards say they spend a lot of time these days sitting out in the yard, hoping for more electrical workers to come by, more snow plows to clear the tree debris from the streets.

“Where is the National Guard?” Edwards asked Thursday morning. “Clean up this mess! It’s just the city people doing it right now.”

That night, news broke that Gov. Kim Reynolds would be sending 100 Guard engineers to Linn County to help with the cleanup starting Friday.

Meanwhile, Schexnayder and Edwards have no electricity, and all their food has gone bad. With no gas stoves, they can’t cook in their apartments. For now, they said they’d make do with what canned goods they had.

‘The pandemic was the last thing on our minds’

On Wednesday night, Phil Staab and his family made the trip from Cedar Rapids to a family member’s house in Wisconsin to offload what was left of their freezer. With gas in the car, not much else going on, it was well worth the drive to save what they could.

Talking from their front porch that looks out over Redmond Park, now a splintered jungle gym of massive downed trees, Staab and his daughter Ivy said the neighborhood has been taking it in stride.

But in the rush of the aftermath, it’s been easy to forget there’s a pandemic going on.

“We just kind of jumped in and had to unbury people’s cars and start clearing the way and checking on the older folks in the neighborhood. And the pandemic was the last thing on our minds. It should have been, but there was just so much happening,” Ivy said.

On the upside she said, “We’ve met a lot of neighbors.”

“The people are gathering together to cut a path back to the world,” her dad added.

‘Trying to clear up as much as I can’

Around the corner on Thursday morning, Michael Larsen had climbed into the mess that is three enormous trees, tangled in a light pole, all crushing two cars that still sat parked in what previously had been Park Avenue SE. He had little more than a powerful sense of neighborliness and a handsaw, and he was doing what he could. Two kids climbed on the fallen trees nearby.

“I don’t have a chainsaw, so I’m not going to be able to get this bigger stuff,” Larsen said. “But I’m trying to clear up as much as I can.”

Larsen said a family was inside one of the cars when the tree fell on top of them, trapping them temporarily. He himself wasn’t aware a storm was rolling in on Monday until his kids gave him a call. He rode it out at home and is grateful to not have much of any damage to his own property.

He’s taken to help clearing the rest of the neighborhood, while residents wait for Alliant Energy and city staff to finish the job.

“It could’ve been a whole lot worse. And that’s what I’m hearing a lot of people say, ‘it could’ve been worse’,” he said.

‘Two to three more weeks without power’

Kaiser Kedley-Bergmann was at work at a day care in Cedar Rapids when the storm rolled in. He had been vaguely aware it was supposed to rain on Monday, but nothing like this. Kids and staff hunkered down for about two hours, but could stay safe in the building. Kedley-Bergmann said he looked out the window at one point and was astonished.

“You couldn’t see a foot out the window,” he said. “It was just a wall of white. You could barely see out of it. It was something else.”

He says the kids were scared when the power went out, but generally handled it quite well, and somewhat miraculously, they seemed content to resume their coloring once the storm lifted.

Walking through his backyard Thursday morning, he pointed out the enormous tree that had broken the fence, crushed the brand new garden shed (purchased on Sunday), and now rested, somewhat gracefully, across the corner of the roof of his home.

His power lines had been ripped clean off of the house, exposing the old siding underneath. With a rented generator and plans to check on friends and help dig out a street that was still blocked in by trees, he seemed in good spirits.

But he says he expects his power to remain out for “two to three weeks."

“I think with an electrical company, our backyard alone would take two days maybe to just get the trees removed and get the power lines back up. And it’s me and then everyone else in my neighborhood,” he said. “So it’ll probably be a while.”

“I would love to be proven wrong about that,” he added with a laugh.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter