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Living In The Unlivable In The Aftermath Of The Derecho

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Kate Payne
/
IPR
Children of Micronesian families play in the yard of an apartment complex in Cedar Rapids that was destroyed by the derecho, leaving many living in tents or in the ruins of the buildings.

In the Cedar Terrace apartment complex on the southwest side of Iowa’s second largest city, small children play amid the shredded shingles, rusting nails and the chunks of fiberglass insulation that litter the grounds, after Monday’s ferocious derecho storm.

Behind one building, families from Micronesia set up their tents for the night near the parking lot. They barbecue wings and ribs over a makeshift grill assembled out of what appear to be exhaust pipes, chicken wire and metal sheeting, the fire itself fueled by wood from trees the derecho had downed.

Through sheer force of will and ingenuity, they were doing all they could with anything they had to help their families through.

At this complex, home to families who sought refuge in Iowa from West and Central Africa and the Pacific Islands, the roofs of many of the apartment units have been entirely blown away. But many residents are still living here.

‘I didn’t think anyone survived’

For many residents here, English is a second or even third language. Many say they had no idea a storm was coming until it was upon them, bringing hurricane force winds that literally ripped their homes apart around them.

“I didn’t hear no sirens until our electricity went off. And then we went out and looked out the window and then it just all happened,” said Lenberg Phillip, a 14-year-old boy originally from Micronesia and a rising freshman at Jefferson High School. “We were just watching out the window and then minutes later the roof came off. And the fiberglass [insulation], those things came off.”

In one unit on the third floor, a new mom had huddled with her family, including a newborn she had given birth to just two weeks prior, as the ceiling was ripped clean off above their heads.

The storm utterly destroyed the apartment, leaving it completely open to the sky and littered with the ruined remnants of a new life: diapers, a crib, a car seat.

A next door neighbor told IPR the woman has been treated at a local hospital for storm injuries and been released, and that she has since relocated to Rock Island, Ill.

Local refugee advocate and Americorps coordinator Lemi Tilahun was at Cedar Terrace registering children for the upcoming school year when the storm hit midday Monday. He was terrified of what he might find in the immediate aftermath.

“I didn’t think anyone survived. It was…it was just that horrific,” Tilahun said. “The debris is just astounding.”

In the wake of the devastation, some families have found space with other friends and relatives, or moved into tents. Advocates say some have even been sleeping in their cars or simply outside under the trees.

As of Saturday evening, these units were still without electricity, and without gas stoves, residents were unable to cook inside their homes.

‘They are human beings’

While outside volunteers have begun bringing supplies, Pastor Sylvain Lukama of Full Grace Ministries, who is known as Pastor Mzuza, says community members here still have critical unmet needs, including basic necessities of food, diapers, personal hygiene supplies and clothes.

“They are human beings,” Mzuza said, his voice thick with emotion and his eyes filling with tears. “What they are going through is not good.”

“These people, they need help,” he added. “But sometimes there are problems to get help because of the barrier of the language. That’s why I’m trying to coordinate in many, many languages to speak with them.”

Some residents had still not received medical attention for injuries sustained in the wake of the storm, which has been called an “inland hurricane."

Lenberg Phillip, the Jefferson High freshman, had developed an extensive rash across his arms and legs after cleaning up piles of the fiberglass insulation that litters the complex.

He rated his pain as an 8 out of 10, which he said was an improvement from before, when he rated it a 10 out of 10. He was also worried he had inhaled fiberglass dust that hung in the air as he worked.

“It was hard to sleep because when you would put on a blanket, it would feel like the blanket was stabbing you. But it’s honestly just your skin, the glass,” Phillip explained. “It just got bigger and bigger and it started itching. Right now it’s burning.”

On Saturday evening, Phillip did receive medical attention at the emergency room at UnityPoint Health-St Luke’s in Cedar Rapids, after family members asked a reporter to accompany him and his legal guardian to the hospital.

Alejandro Pino, Executive Director of the local organization Young Parents Network, has been helping provide direct outreach and aid like hot meals and water to refugee families in the city. He says that effort has been almost entirely conducted by community advocates and grassroots nonprofits, and not government agencies or organizations focused on disaster response like the Red Cross, a feeling echoed by numerous residents who spoke with IPR.

“That’s probably been the most frustrating thing to see,” Pino said. “I’ve had multiple people, when they show up to volunteer, in tears just to see the devastation. And the fact that there’s still people living in apartments that have been deemed unlivable by the city, because they have nowhere to go.”

Cedar Rapids City Council member Ashley Vanorny and State Rep. Tracy Ehlert were present at Cedar Terrace on Saturday and working with community advocates on how best to communicate available resources to residents there, including an overnight shelter in the city.

Advocates warn some refugee families are wary of going to shelters, because they are desperate to hold on to the familiarity of their own homes, even if they are crumbling, and are hesitant to leave all their worldly belongings vulnerable to potential theft.

‘We are refugees again here in America’

Still, days after the storm devastated the city, residents have faced deprivation, with some running desperately low on critical supplies like food, oxygen and insulin.

Cedar Terrace resident Pacifique Mushishi told WHO-TV through an interpreter that this week has transported him back to the experience of living in the refugee camps he fled.

“We left Africa seeking refugee here. Now it feels as if we are refugees again, here in America,” Mushishi said through an interpreter.

The Cedar Rapids Fire Department has placarded the apartments with “unsafe to occupy” notices. On Saturday afternoon, Fire Chief Greg Smith visited the complex and, speaking through an interpreter, urged residents to stay out of the buildings for their own safety and seek shelter elsewhere, including at a congregate shelter at the Veterans Memorial Building.

“These structures here are currently unstable and unsafe and I would encourage you to not enter these structure for your own safety,” Smith said, according to a transcript of his statements that WHO-TV shared with IPR. “We are working on other shelter options but I want to be sensitive to the cultural needs and cultural impacts to the community.”

Smith urged residents to reach out to Americorps members if they’re running low on basic needs and said that will be passed on to the City. In the meantime, he says city staff will work to “further identify the structural integrity of the buildings."

‘Maybe I will sleep outside’

Still, on Saturday evening some residents had not gotten Smith’s message about the need to leave the apartments, including Franck Wendell.

He, his wife and their two children, (two years, ten months old and one month, one week old, he said precisely), live in the apartment directly below the unit where the storm blasted away the roof above the new mother and her family.

Miraculously and surreally, Wendell’s unit just one floor down appeared untouched by the storm, family photographs and art still hanging on the wall, just so.

“Maybe I will sleep outside. I don’t know,” Wendell said. “I don’t know actually. It’s really hard.”

Still, Wendell’s resiliency, his will to survive and his hope for the future shone through the darkness of the storm’s aftermath.

“I thank God nobody died over here,” he said. “Everything will be ok soon. It won’t be now or tomorrow. But one day it will be ok.”

Still, advocates are insistent that a culturally appropriate humanitarian solution must be found.

"We have small kids sleeping outside in cars. Or even still inside the apartments, wires hanging down," Pino said. "It's something that should not happen here. Plain and simple."