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Cedar Rapids Is Left Reeling From Collective Trauma, This Time During A Pandemic

Iowans have a tragedy playbook. When a family is in trouble, we rally to set things right. But what do you do when every single household in your city experiences collective trauma?

A ten minute warning. That’s all you had.

You did not know what was coming. When the siren went off, you did what you always do for a tornado watch: casually secured the lawn chairs, shut the windows, herded the cats into the basement, and went to your window to watch the storm.

But then a meteorological fist punched its way through every quadrant of Cedar Rapids: green skies and red lighting, sideways rain, mature trees bent toward the ground, visibility reduced to ghostly outlines. Stunned moments trying to process the storm’s sudden velocity. You have a confused thought that you’ve seen this footage before … but from Florida.

You realize this is not a normal storm. You have seconds to grab essentials: laptops, phones, and IDs. Your partner picks up a bowl of cat food and water. You scramble to locate candles and lighters before descending into the shadows of your basement.

081720-Derecho-Weather-GIF
National Weather Service
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Widespread, destructive straight line winds blew across central Iowa during the day on Aug. 10, 2020. The highest official wind gusts measured was 126 mph at Atkins, Iowa in Linn County. Maximum estimated winds were around 140 mph.

You listen to the lashing wind and rain pummeling the house. You feel the thuds of what you assume are trees crashing on the ground. You push away the thought of what it might be like to lose your home, muttering, “It’s only stuff.”

The storm rages longer than anything you have ever experienced.

In the immediate aftermath, your entire world shrinks to the street where you live. People dash into the pouring rain to do welfare checks on neighbors, ignoring the thunder and lighting. There’s a strange sense of relief seeing people alive and moving amid the wreckage.

“Are you ok” is the tense cry repeated up and down the block. The answers vary: “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” “Is so and so home today?”

You look for ways to be helpful, even though the rain is still drenching. There is only so much that can be done with brute strength. You see downed power lines and a fallen tree blocking the road around the corner. You have no idea if the power lines are live or if the surrounding streets are impassable. All you know is that this stretch is not safe. You cannot let an ambulance, fire truck, or semi get stuck here. You don a yellow gardening hat and start diverting cars, hoping you can make a drop of difference.

The hours march on

The day dissolves into vignettes. Flagging down a semi and helping the driver navigate the wreckage while he tells you the interstate is littered with jackknifed trucks. Dragging tree trunks out of the road and pushing limbs away from sidewalks. Confirming all the alleys are impassable. Raking debris from an elderly neighbor’s driveway.

The sun comes back out. You pick up broken glass from your yard, unsure of whose house it came from. You find four colors of metal siding twisted around the bushes. You laugh at the tomato plant still standing upright, with fruit no less.

She tearfully tells you that the tree leaning against the roof has cracked the corner of the house where her one-year-old’s nursey is. You stay six feet away. You cannot hug her, squeeze her shoulder, or offer any physical comfort: there’s still a pandemic.

A neighbor you have only met once asks to cross your property, so she can assess her backyard. You gently tell her to prepare for some house damage. She starts crying when she rounds the corner. She tearfully tells you that the tree leaning against the roof has cracked the corner of the house where her one-year-old’s nursey is. You stay six feet away. You cannot hug her, squeeze her shoulder, or offer any physical comfort: there’s still a pandemic. She mumbles about being thankful that no one was at home as she steps over a gallon of unopened milk neither of you had noticed before.

With no power, internet, or cell service, your universe contracts even further. You mechanically empty your fridge into a cooler, knowing you are going to lose everything in the freezer. You are thankful for recently purchasing a gas grill – it’s now your only means of cooking. Most of the day is spent in silence. There’s nothing to say anyway.

You walk to the grocery store two blocks away while there’s still daylight. It takes twenty minutes to navigate the destruction. Everyone else has the same idea. The lines are like Black Friday, times ten. Most everyone is wearing a mask, but the thought of waiting in a crowd is too much. You return home emptyhanded.

At 8 p.m. your house has reached 82 degrees. Still no cell service. You and your spouse go for a drive to charge phones and savor the air conditioning. You get just enough signal to send an emergency message to family. The local radio stations are broadcasting static. With no running stoplights, every intersection is a four-way stop fraught with distracted and confused drivers. You return home, worried about friends in the area but unable to reach anyone. You make a mental note to buy everyone CB radios for Christmas.

Days off the grid

The week trickles by. The sound of sirens, chain saws, backhoes, and generators fill every waking hour. Reports about how widespread the damage is are delivered by word of mouth and intermittent texts. An entire city of over 130,000 people and most outlying communities pummeled into a standstill. Intrusive worries about the long-term economic impacts are for another day.

Hot nights and a curfew produce hot tempers. A barrage of angry voices in the dark erupts into a volley of curses. Flashlights scatter like fireflies and the street returns to silence. You peer at the sky, wondering where the trail of smoke is from. Your spouse gently lets you know you’re seeing the Milky Way for the first time. There are no trees or streetlights in the heart of the city to obscure it anymore.

You consider your resources, but there are none. Virtually everything is offline.

You consider your resources, but there are none. Virtually everything is offline. You contemplate evacuating to stay with family two hours away, but there’s still the coronavirus to consider. You hear people have traveled up to 60 miles to small communities only to find those gas stations are already dry. You witness the demand for fuel as the first gas stations are brought back to life. You wonder if the interstate or major highways are even passable. You decide traveling out of the area is too risky. The weight of surviving is pierced by the cry of cicadas in the afternoon heat.

#IowaStrong, but also #IowaTired

The anxiety and frustration are palpable. Tens of thousands are still without power. The National Guard finally arrived Friday. The first volunteer stations were organized and consolidated over the weekend. A bright spot is the steady stream of helpers, the ones Mr. Rogers said to look for, who are sweeping through to deliver aid.

But the devastation is so great, and the response so anemic, that the cruelty of the situation our most vulnerable Iowans face is now coming to light. Low-income housing, mobile home parks, elderly living communities, group homes for those with disabilities, and apartment complexes with refuges – these are all populations who desperately need help.

Iowans have a tragedy playbook. When a family is in trouble, we rally to set things right. But what do you do when every single household in your city experiences collective trauma? You help where you can, but there’s no way to soothe the feeling of chipping away at an iceberg with a toothpick.

Many people’s nerves have already been frayed by the chaos of 2020. Now we are without the aforementioned playbook, living through an unprecedented natural disaster during a pandemic.

Please, please, send help?