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Cedar Rapids Residents, Officials Commemorate One Year Since The Derecho

Cedar Rapids elected officials and residents planted a tree in Bever Park on Tuesday to mark one year since the powerful derecho that devastated the city.
Kate Payne
Cedar Rapids elected officials and residents planted a tree in Bever Park on Tuesday to mark one year since the powerful derecho that devastated the city.

A year to the day after the devastating August 10, 2020 derecho, local leaders in Cedar Rapids say the hard-hit city is making progress on its efforts to rebuild. As residents mark a year defined by the storm’s profound destruction, city officials are also recognizing the community’s resilience in the face of the disaster and acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.

Storm damage can still be seen across Cedar Rapids, where tarped roofs and shattered trees dot the skyline. It’s a clear reminder of the devastation brought by the derecho, a ferocious straight-line windstorm that packed winds as high as 140 miles per hour, comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane.

Local officials gathered in hard-hit Bever Park on the southeast side of the city on Tuesday morning to commemorate the anniversary of the storm, celebrating how residents helped each other through the aftermath and acknowledging that the recovery is far from complete.

Mayor Brad Hart called the storm “unprecedented” and “life changing."

“Everyone in this city was impacted in some way,” Hart said.

In the course of the storm, 6,000 homes and businesses in Cedar Rapids were damaged, along with all 195 of the city’s traffic lights. An estimated 65 percent of the city’s tree canopy was lost. At its peak, some 97 percent of Linn County was without electricity.

In the aftermath, many struggled to access food, diapers, and life-saving medical supplies like insulin and oxygen. As residents waited for official response efforts, they turned to each other to meet their basic needs or to dig out a nearby street, at times only equipped with a handsaw and a powerful sense of neighborliness.

Neighbors distribute donated food at the hard-hit Cedar Terrace apartments on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids on August 17, 2020.
Kate Payne
IPR file
Neighbors distribute donated food at the hard-hit Cedar Terrace apartments on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids on August 17, 2020.

“Thanks to every one of our citizens who helped others,” Hart said Tuesday. “You shared generators. You patched roofs. You helped clear trees. You shared food.”

“It’s really that spirit of resilience and perseverance and kindness that we’re here today to celebrate,” he added. “The storm was horrific and we need to understand the damage it did. But we need to celebrate this community and how many people stood up and continue to stand up to help others.”

A full year after the storm, some residents are dealing with damage that’s so extensive, their homes are considered unlivable, according to J’nae Peterman of the local social services provider Waypoint Services, which has served as a clearinghouse for residents in need of derecho assistance.

“There are a lot of people still out there struggling,” Peterman said. Some residents are dealing with “debris that's still blocking doorways, that they can't safely get in and out of their home because there's a tree too large and they can't afford to have somebody come and cut it down and finding a volunteer with the correct equipment to come and do that work.”

Delays in repairing damaged houses and apartments have exacerbated the city’s affordable housing shortage, she added.

“Our homeless counts are astronomical right now,” Peterman said. “We've never seen them this high before.”

At the commemoration event, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz acknowledged that some residents are still trying to settle insurance claims and fix damaged homes, work made more difficult by skyrocketing repair costs and a shortage of contractors.

“Many of our residents are still working to make repairs to their private homes and yards, and businesses to their locations,” Pomeranz said. “It’s not that we’re slow. But the amount of damage was devastating. And the number of contractors to do the work and volunteers and individuals was certainly limited after the event. Nonetheless we’re making progress and we’re coming back strong.”

Officials planted a swamp white oak tree at Bever Park on Tuesday to commemorate the recovery efforts and as a symbol of future reinvestment. The city council has committed $1 million a year for 10 years as part of the ReLeaf Cedar Rapids initiative, which aims to restore the tree canopy in a more resilient and equitable way.

Also on Tuesday, the city council approved the allocation of $1 million for the PATCH Program, which provides loans and construction management support to homeowners who are still trying to recover from the derecho.

The funding comes from the city’s allocation of pandemic relief funding under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Clint Twedt-Ball, executive director of Matthew 25, a local nonprofit helping oversee the PATCH Program, applauded the funding, which he says will provide much-needed help for dozens of homeowners on the program’s waiting list.

“Today with this contribution, the city of Cedar Rapids is showing it cares about our citizens who may feel forgotten after the derecho,” Twedt-Ball told the city council. “You are bringing signs of hope to the 80 plus people on the PATCH list who are waiting for funding so that they can receive assistance.”

The funding is expected to help residents like Heidi Sebetka, who only recently discovered extensive derecho-related damage to the roof of her mobile home on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids. Sebetka needs her entire roof replaced, at a cost of some $8,500, an amount she says she simply cannot afford on her own.

“Right now I do not see going anywhere else,” she told IPR last month. “And the cost of moving and starting over? And where to even begin? No. No. That's why this is so devastating, you know? And also so crucial. That I have to figure this out. I just have to figure it out.”

Sebetka has since been in contact with Waypoint and Matthew 25, which she says are expected to help her cover the replacement cost.

Twedt-Ball urged residents to continue checking in on their neighbors and to spread the word about the help available through the program.

“I want to encourage all of us to look out into our neighborhoods and find the most vulnerable homeowners. If you see tarps on a house, take the step of connecting with that person and asking them if they need some help,” he said, “and let them know about the PATCH Program.”

Residents can find out more about the program here or by calling Waypoint Services at 319-366-7999.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter