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In Benton County, A Century Farm Lost To The Derecho

Courtesy: Kevin Hertle
Terry and Judi Hertle's century farm in Benton County was devastated by the derecho. Terry's grandfather built the farmhouse in 1919.

The derecho that battered Iowa last month devastated parts of rural Iowa, including many of the state’s farms. Some homes were left unlivable, and even tombstones, hundred-year-old windmills and "landmarks barns" didn't escape the storm's wrath. In some cases the destruction is so extensive, some families may not build back what was lost.

Terry and Judi Hertle live in a two story farmhouse built in 1919, four miles north of Newhall. Or a least they used to, before the storm. Now the house has no roof.

On a recent morning, a humming generator runs some fans inside, in a desperate attempt to keep the moisture out. Power has been restored, but the damage is so extensive, there are concerns an electrical fire could finish the place off.

Sitting in her kitchen, Judi recounts how she was home alone when the storm blew in.

"[Terry and I] were talking on the phone the whole time and I said, 'I think the awnings are going to go!' And by that, they did. I said, 'I better head to the basement!' When I went down through the breezeway, I said, 'there goes the chimney!' And the bricks were flying all over," she recounted.

She says she was petrified.

"I said, 'there goes the roof!' I said, 'I'm down in the basement'. I went down there, tried to ride it out," she said.

Courtesy: Judi Hertle
The roof of Terry and Judi Hertle's century farmhouse was blown off, with windows blown out and extensive water damage inside.

Terry came home to what was left of the house his grandparents built; the house he’d lived in his entire life.

"I've lived in this house since I was born. And now the first time in 75 years, I've moved out. And I always kind of wondered when that was going to be. Maybe they'd move me out when I died here!" he said.

Windows were blown out. There was a two-by-four through their bedroom ceiling.

What was once their attic was now open to the sky, with boxes of their children's keepsakes, old books and Christmas decorations blown apart or pounded with rain.

Their belongings were everywhere, scattered across the yard and in the fields.

The roof of the barn had blown off, and rafters in the machine shed had collapsed, but miraculously their farm machinery was undamaged, apart from the steering wheel coming off of Terry's 1946 John Deere A tractor, a favorite for parades.

Despite having never left, Terry said he always swore he would never build the house back if a storm came.

"I always said, if the house ever came down...I never thought…if a tornado, or ever had a fire…I will not rebuild the house back on the acreage because people live in town anymore," he said. "If you don't have livestock, there's no reason to live on the farm."

The Hertles say they haven’t had any livestock to speak of since the Nixon administration. They’re retired now, and their son Kevin farms their 480 acres.

Kevin says their corn and soybeans aren’t a total loss, yet.

"We may get to take the combine out there, hopefully. Go out there and get a little bit and might get something out of it, you know? And get a little extra money," he said.

The Hertles say they're well-insured against the disaster and don't believe it will bankrupt them, as it might less-established farmers.

Kevin says he's been reassured by his banker that they can make the numbers work.

"He's like, 'Kevin, we're not gonna sell you out, alright? We're not even thinking about that'," he said.

But everyday, the prospect for their corn crop seems to grow dimmer. It may prove challenging enough just to find a grain elevator that still has bins to store the grain.

"The downed corn is close to the ground with bacteria, it's gonna have mold. And some of this mold will turn into aflatoxin, which is a poison and they won't take it," he said. "So even though this corn is kind of halfway still standing, are they gonna say, 'well, yeah, you have to combine it'. But then you find out it's got aflatoxin?"

Courtesy: Judi Hertle
Terry and Judi Hertle's century barn partially collapsed. For a century, it bore the name "Hertle," painted on the side.

Losing the old farmstead represents another shift away from how Iowa agriculture was for so long: families living on the land, integrating their livestock and crops.

"Landscape's changed so much I won't even be able to find my way home!" Terry said.

The ferocious strength of the storm "amazed" him. He recounts a grain bin that flew more than half a mile through the air before crashing to the ground in a bean field, tumbling another quarter of a mile, and finally coming to rest near his son's house.

So much of the trauma of the storm in rural Iowa has been suffered in isolation.

With families overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the damage on their own farms, Terry says many have been unable to help their neighbors as they normally would in the aftermath of smaller disasters.

"Our friend to the south two miles, him and his grandsons laid underneath the combine in the machine shed and rode the storm out," Terry said. "I’ve heard of people on their tractors out in the field got caught in it, just laid in ravine, in a ditch, nowhere to go."

"There's gonna be some horror stories out there yet that are gonna be revealed after we all can sit down and visit," he added.

Terry heads into town to talk with an insurance agent, and Kevin has to run too. Judi stays behind.

She points out the rows of framed black and white photos, showing the farm through the decades, and the Hertles' journey to America aboard a ship on the Red Star Line.

"These are the ships they came here from Germany on," she said, pointing.

"This was his dad, and that was the grandparents who built the farm here, then. And they had the five kids," she said with a laugh.

She heads down into the basement, where the water damage is rapidly giving way to mold.

"These ceilings are just black. And it’s coming down the side walls here, I see," she said with disgust.

Even though Terry swore he'd never rebuild, a part of him is still hanging on to the house in spite of himself, she says.

"I still don’t know how he thinks he can save part of this house. To me it’s not healthy," she said. "We'd have to knock it down clear to the studs and then you're gonna put a lot more money in it. And then if we don't get it resold?"

She’s worried her husband just isn’t processing what’s happened.

"I haven’t seen him break down at all or anything. He just…" she trailed off. "Like I say, I don't know."

Kate Payne
Terry and Judi Hertle had just had their century old barn reinforced a few years ago, by "barn doctors" who swore it would never come down.

She leaves the basement, and heads out back to inspect what’s left of barn. They had just had it reinforced after a tornado a couple years ago.

"We got barn doctors out of Minnesota. They pulled it up and straightened it and did all this reinforcing. And they said, 'that barn will never come down'. Well the sides didn’t!" she said with a laugh. "But it took the top, now. You can see how high up they went and then we lost the top half."

Piled underneath the collapsed roof are the original boards that Terry's grandfather August had painted a hundred years before, reading "A. Hertle."

Judi walks over to the edge of a soybean field, still littered with pieces of their lives: old business cards and sheet music, as well as shards of fiberglass insulation, and the razor-edged scraps of metal that cut through fields across rural Iowa, blown off of untold numbers of machine sheds and grain bins.

She gathers up little bits of debris, and comes across a wrinkled piece of paper.

"'Happy Birthday'," she reads, smoothing it in her hands. "That’s from my ring bearer and he sent it to my Kevin. On his first birthday."

She throws it into a big pit they’ve dug out back, where they’ve been burning what didn’t blow away: hundred year old trees, Terry's old baby stroller, its wheel now bent, Pioneer seed bags. All swallowed up by a hole so deep, if she fell in, she couldn't climb out.

"Here’s the big hole. And it just smolders," she said. "And every time we go by, we pick up something else and throw it in."

What they can’t burn, they’ll bury, and try to move on.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter