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The Storm That No One Was Prepared For

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Kate Payne
Some 1,700 homes in Cedar Rapids were impacted by the rare and ferocious derecho, which packed hurricane-force winds but came with little advance notice.

The powerful derecho storm that battered Iowa two weeks ago caught scores of Iowans off-guard, slamming the state with hurricane-force winds with very little notice. Unlike for other severe weather events, this storm did not trigger emergency cell phone alerts from the National Weather Service. But that may change in the wake of the derecho.

Fourteen year old Lenberg Phillip had no idea what he was in for, on the morning of Monday August 10.

"I didn’t hear no sirens until our electricity went off. And then we went out and looked out the window and it just all happened [...] and minutes later the roof came off."
- Lenberg Phillip, Cedar Rapids resident

He was at his family’s home at the Cedar Terrace apartment complex on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, when the storm came in.

“I didn’t hear no sirens until our electricity went off. And then we went out and looked out the window and it just all happened,” Phillip said.
What happened next has been called historic by the National Weather Service: a rare, ferocious storm with top wind speeds estimated at 140 miles per hour, comparable to a Category 4 hurricane.

“We were just watching out the window and minutes later the roof came off,” Phillip recounted.

He emerged into a disaster zone: roofs peeled off of buildings, electrical poles snapped like tooth picks and 100-year-old trees ripped clean out of the earth, not just in his neighborhood, but across the city and throughout eastern Iowa.

The sheer scale of the damage was almost indescribable: it’s kind of devastation that Floridians get days or even a week to prepare for.

‘Didn’t know there was such a thing’

While some Iowans say the only notice they got of the storm were the sirens that came just 10 or 15 minutes ahead of time, Steve O’Konek, head of Linn County Emergency Management, said he was briefed a few hours ahead of time by National Weather Service staffers.

“This was a rapid, violent storm. And I think people just, myself included, kind of took it as a serious windstorm,” O’Konek said. “I didn’t really estimate the damage and destruction it could do, honestly.”

In the hours after the storm came that strange word that so many Iowans say they had never heard before: derecho.

When asked if he was familiar with derechos before the storm hit, O’Konek told IPR he himself “didn’t know there was such a thing."

“I did not. Full disclosure, I had no idea,” O’Konek said. “Never heard it.”

"I did not [know what a derecho was]. Full disclosure, I had no idea. Never heard it."
-Steve O'Konek, Linn County Emergency Manager

The storm that many Iowans didn’t know was possible left more than half a million people without power.

Cell and internet service was nearly non-existent in Linn County and nearby communities.

The phone system for all of Linn County Government went entirely off-line.

While many families struggled to find their next meal, grocery stores threw out untold pounds of food, without enough generators to keep it cold.

As if stuck in a blizzard, it took days for residents to dig their way out of the trees that ensnared their neighborhoods, only to find more destruction, but with almost no way to communicate the scale of the disaster.

It’s still not clear how many have been left homeless by the storm.

It took days for the Red Cross to open an overnight shelter in Cedar Rapids, days for city officials to hold a press conference, and days for Gov. Kim Reynolds to mobilize the Iowa National Guard and secure federal disaster aid.

Standing outside a partially-collapsed building at the Westdale Court Apartments in Cedar Rapids a week after the storm, Jane Garcia said she couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more help.

“We’ve had the smallest amount of help,” Garcia said. “I mean look at these buildings. There are no roofs. Where are the people who are going to fix it? It’s been a week.”

A failure of the system

Meteorologists say the nature of these storms makes them inherently hard to predict.

Iowa was never going to get the lead time that southern states get for actual hurricanes, the luxury of alerting FEMA and dispatching fleets of utility trucks days before the power even goes out.

Still, some say it didn’t have to be like this.

Rebecca Kopelman is a meteorologist at KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids, and was live on the air, trying to prepare her audience as the storm hit the city.

She got all the watches and warnings from the National Weather Service.

But unlike for tornado and flood emergencies, it’s currently not the policy of the agency to automatically put out cell phone alerts for a severe thunderstorm warning.

Kopelman says that’s a failure of the system.

“It's not going to change what happened, it probably would not have even changed the response, the slow response that we got in terms of the national attention and the assistance,” Koplelman said. “But would it have helped prepare people? I hope so. And I think so.”

"Could we have possibly, the people that died, could we have stopped those? I can hope so. But you don't know."
- Rebecca Kopelman, meteorologist, KGAN-TV

Adding severe thunderstorm text alerts is something the NWS was considering, even before the derecho, according to warning coordination meteorologist Rich Kinney at the agency’s office in the Quad Cities.

“It is likely in the not too distant future, perhaps even by next severe weather season, we will have the more severe, severe thunderstorm warnings alerted as well on your phone,” Kinney said. “That certainly would have helped August 10th.”

But after hearing from so many Iowans who were unfamiliar with the term "derecho," and noting the relative lack of attention the crisis received from national media outlets, Kopelman wonders if the language to describe this storm is falling short.

"Does the fact that it's called a derecho and that's it, is that what has led to the lag in response and attention?" she asked.

Any changes would be too late for the Iowans who rode out this storm, and for those who died. But Kopelman wonders if a more robust warning system could save a life next time.

"Could we have possibly, the people that died, could we have stopped those?" she asked. "I can hope so. But you don't know."

Like so many others in the wake of the storm, Kopelman takes cold comfort in the thought, "it could’ve been so much worse".

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter