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Benton County Residents Feel Forgotten As They Wait For Federal Aid

Kate Payne
A number of rural Iowa landmarks didn't survive the derecho, including this grain bin outside of Newhall.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has praised the Trump Administration for taking quick action to provide federal support in the aftermath of the rare and destructive derecho that hit the state earlier this month. But so far only one county has been granted individual assistance through FEMA: Linn County. Meanwhile right next door in Benton County, some residents say they feel forgotten and abandoned.

‘I don’t know what else to do’

Tammy Johnston was lucky to not be home when the derecho hit.

She lives at the Timber Ridge Trailer Park outside of Shellsburg in eastern Benton County, and returned home to devastation.

Some neighbors’ trailers were completely pushed off their foundations while families huddled inside. Roofs were entirely ripped off, debris everywhere.

On a recent evening weeks after the storm, trees still entrapped some trailers. Others were so damaged, families seemed to have abandoned them, leaving behind parts of their lives in the yard: a car seat, a rocking horse, a kid’s bike.

“[My neighbor’s] roof was right here, in between here,” Johnston said, pointing where the roof had come off a nearby trailer. “It sheared off her gas lines. It was spraying out everywhere.”

"The recovery from this will probably never be…it will never be complete"
Steve Meyer, Benton County Emergency Management Commission

Johnston considers herself lucky: the concrete blocks that her trailer sits on had shifted slightly in the storm, but it still seems stable.

Her friend Lori Digman was helping her try to rake up the fiberglass insulation that litters her yard, mostly in vain.

“I don't know how you jack up a mobile home and fix that. I don't know. But you got to have the blocks fixed,” Digman added.

Johnston says she just lost her job because of the pandemic and isn’t sure what her next step will be.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said, “other than clean.”

Elsewhere in the park, tents were still set up, where some families slept in the early days after the storm.

Kate Payne
The derecho tore through the Timber Ridge Trailer Park outside of Shellsburg, leaving some homes unlivable.

Blown away by the devastation

Outside the trailer park’s management office, a generator roared and handwritten signs directed residents to call the Red Cross.

Inside, co-manager Shawn Wylie had piled up boxes of food, diapers and clothes, donated by community groups. Wylie and her husband Bill had taken the job and moved from California less than a month before the storm hit.

They themselves live in one of the trailers, but still consider themselves fortunate. While their porch collapsed off the front of their home, they’re still able to clamber inside.

“We were just blown away on the devastation,” she said. “Some people around here are on limited incomes. And now you have this come through. How are they going to be able to come back from that?”

But she was trying to help them through; on the front desk sat neat piles of paperwork residents could fill out.

“These are all different things given to us, especially from Red Cross, all the different pamphlets for people to sign up if they had spoiled food from the power outage because we were without power for five days,” Wylie explained. “For grants from the counties for temporary housing and then just how to deal with generators and safety and disaster programs.”

One of the programs that Benton County residents cannot qualify for is FEMA individual assistance, which could help them repair their homes, replace their belongings or pay medical bills.

So far, only Linn County residents have access to those funds, even though 15 other counties are part of the federal disaster declaration.

Tombstones broken, landmark barns ‘gone’

Benton County has never seen a storm like this one, says Steve Meyer, head of the county’s Emergency Management Commission.

He surveyed the damage the day after the storm.

“In a tornado, you drive in and out of the damage. This, it just never ends,” Meyer said. “You'd see a farm building, a farm site, severely damaged if not destroyed. Well, then you kept coming to another one, another one, another one. It just never ends, any direction you’d drive.”

Meyer says the storm has already fundamentally changed the landscape; he recounted seeing power poles wrenched out of the ground and snapped, and tombstones that were “blown over and broken."

"I really feel like we are being told, pull yourself up from the bootstraps. Well, if you no longer have straps on your boots, how are we supposed to pull them up? And that's if you're lucky enough to have a boot."
Pastor Kate West, First Congregational United Church of Christ

“You still see around the countryside, a lot of these old steel windmills that have been around for over a century. And how many wind storms have they gone through? And they're twisted up and gone now,” Meyer said.

“The other thing that's really heartrending to me is all of the old landmark barns,” he said. “They're gone.”

But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that have been wiped away, century old farmsteads have been blown apart.

“A typical farm may have been there in one family for over 100 years. And they have worked for over 100 years to build that farm up. And in half an hour it's gone,” Meyer said.

“The recovery from this will probably never be…it will never be complete.”

Kate Payne
Judi Hertle walks through her partially collapsed barn at her family's century farm outside Vinton.

‘Individual assistance could change their lives’

While the damage to Benton County farmers is staggering, Stephen Beck says he’s much more worried about everyone else in rural Iowa.

He’s the city administrator of Belle Plaine in the southwest corner of the county, which serves as a regional hub for smaller communities throughout the area.

It’s the rural poor that are in crisis, he says.

“People that are living on fixed incomes, people that are out of work, working poor. All of these folks here, some of them haven't worked hardly at all this year because bars and restaurants were shut down, and some of them never opened again. And they're really hurting,” Beck said. “And that individual assistance could change their lives.”

Beck sat down for an interview in City Hall on his first day off since the storm. He’d spent much of the day on hold with insurance companies, assessing the extensive damage to his own home and vehicle.

The city looked like a war zone after the storm, Beck says.

While he praised the work of Benton County Emergency Manager Scott Hansen, he said he was stunned by what he described as the lack of governmental and institutional support.

“They stopped at Tama. They stopped at Cedar Rapids. They stopped all over the place. They flew over Belle Plaine. They flew over Benton County like it doesn't exist,” he said.

"They stopped at Tama. They stopped at Cedar Rapids. They stopped all over the place. They flew over Belle Plaine. They flew over Benton County like it doesn't exist."
-Stephen Beck, City Administrator, Belle Plaine

Instead of highlighting the work of state officials, the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, he pointed to a local social media influencer whose blogging attracted a disaster response organization from Oklahoma, and a squad of eager students from Union College in Nebraska.

It was neighbors and volunteers who dug each other out of their homes, who lined City Hall with borrowed refrigerators to salvage pounds of food during the power outages, who fed up to 800 people a day in the town of 2,400, volunteers like Pastor Kate West of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Belle Plaine, who became the city’s defacto emergency food aid coordinator.

She ran her operation out of the city’s community center, where residents could also plug in their phones, get on the internet, and charge their medical devices.

“The number of people that had to come to the community center for two weeks just to do breathing treatments with nebulizers, in 2020 in the United States of America, should not be happening in my opinion,” West said. “But it is. And apparently it's okay with people.”

Kate Payne
Saint Michael's Catholic Church in Norway suffered significant damage during the derecho.

West also criticized the lack of organized response from governmental officials and formal disaster aid groups and says rural Iowans are clearly in need of federal assistance.

Whether it’s access to housing, jobs or mental healthcare, West says there’s just less of a safety net keeping rural Iowans from total ruin after this storm.

“I really feel like we are being told, pull yourself up from the bootstraps,” she said. “Well, if you no longer have straps on your boots, how are we supposed to pull them up? And that's if you're lucky enough to have a boot.”

The state is currently working with FEMA to complete and validate damage assessments supplied by the remaining counties. While Reynolds has warned that some counties may not win approval, FEMA spokesman John Mills says final determinations should come soon.

Mills told IPR there are no specific metrics per se that counties must meet to qualify for individual assistance; instead, the agency considers a number of factors including any casualties, any significant damage to homes, especially those that are uninsured, and overall trauma to a community.

The program is not meant to make residents whole, Mills warned.

“All the FEMA individual assistance program is designed to do is to help give homeowners a hand up, to help make their home habitable again, while they figured out their next steps. It's really just a hand up rather than rebuilding everything,” he said.

Still, Beck says he’s trying to hold out hope for Benton County.

“The federal government is going to fail this area. They're going to fail rural Iowa,” he said. “I hope I'm wrong. I really hope I'm wrong.”

Correction: a previous version of this story misstated the FEMA spokesman's name. He is John Mills, not John Wills.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter