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One Year Since The Derecho, Some Iowans Still Struggling To Recover

Kate Payne
On Thursday Aug. 5, an apartment building at the Westdale Court complex on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids appeared almost unchanged since powerful derecho devastated the city one year before.

Exactly one year ago, a powerful derecho blasted across the state of Iowa. Packing wind speeds as high as 140 miles per hour, the storm caught many Iowans entirely off-guard and left a trail of devastation in its wake. One year later, some Iowans are still struggling to rebuild.

Aug. 10, 2020 began like most any other day. Some Iowans knew there was a chance of thunderstorms that day. Many didn’t even know that much.

“I didn't know there was any kind of weather system forming or anything like that,” Shellsburg resident Rose Kelsey recalled. “And when that storm came on, it was shocking.”

Despite the efforts of journalists and the National Weather Service to get the message out about the ferocious straight-line windstorm, for many Iowans it came with virtually no notice.

It was a storm unlike the state had ever seen, carving a path of destruction from Huxley to Tama and from Palo to Van Horne.

Even the term “derecho” was unknown to many Iowans, who never thought it was possible for a storm comparable to a Category 4 hurricane to materialize in the Midwest, apparently out of the blue.

National Weather Service
The powerful midday derecho that plowed through Iowa on Aug. 10, 2020 packed winds as high as 140 miles per hour, comparable to a major Category 4 hurricane.

Cedar Rapids resident David Niyogushima was on the way to Walmart to start his shift when the storm hit.

“I just saw like a bunch of wind coming so I had to pull over to the side. And I just saw trees just going up and down, up and down,” he recalled, sitting in his family’s newly-rebuilt apartment on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids.

Winds as high as 140 miles per hour pounded Cedar Rapids for some 40 minutes. Niyogushima rode it out in his car on the side of the road, watching as power lines exploded around him and wondering if he was going to die.

“There were just so much explosions happening because of the wires and things,” he said. “I was afraid that one of the wires was going to hit the water and then I’m just going to…die in the car from the electricity.”

Kate Payne
In the aftermath of the derecho, kids play in the wreckage of an apartment building on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids. This unit has been entirely demolished.

Across town, Bridgette Williams-Robinson and her children were visiting the home of a relative in Wellington Heights when she started getting reports from a friend of a bad storm coming their way.

“It looked like it was a really bad tornado. ‘I think it's time to go’,” she recounted. “The sirens go off. As the siren goes off, it went from dark blue to black outside.”

They raced home under the impossibly dark midday skies, trying to outrun the inland hurricane bearing down on them. As they reached the 8th Avenue Bridge spanning the Cedar River, Williams-Robinson said it felt the river itself might wash them away.

“By the time we got to the peak of the bridge I could not see anymore,” she said. “It was so much rain and the river almost felt like it came up and like came down onto our car.”

At the Summit View Mobile Home Park on the southwest side of town, Rose Kelsey and her mother were huddled in the hallway of a trailer, holding hands and praying.

“That storm pounded us and pounded us. It was like, ‘well, he's here, Mom. God's here. He's going to save us’,” Kelsey said.

When Iowans emerged, the damage was profound. In some neighborhoods, it was like a bomb went off. Some families had lost everything.

The storm toppled semis, upended century-old oak trees and destroyed homes and businesses, killing four people across Iowa and Indiana.

The sheer scope of the damage was staggering; officials in Cedar Rapids deployed snowplows to clear trees off some streets.

In the wake of the storm, Iowans faced hunger and deprivation. Neighbors with chainsaws and crowdfunded volunteer efforts sprang into action as residents struggled to get food, insulin and diapers and waited for official response efforts.

In some affected areas, there was a near blackout of cell, phone and internet service, isolating residents and delaying the response.

Families pitched tents amid the rubble of their homes or slept in their cars, waiting four days for a Red Cross shelter to open in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Residents with the means traveled for miles in search of a hotel room, not only to escape the August heat but to recharge vital medical devices like oxygen tanks and motorized wheelchairs.

Century-old farmhouses and generations-old barns were destroyed. Acre upon acre of flattened corn and soybeans were even visible from space.

A full year later, some have been fortunate enough to have the resources to rebuild and been lucky enough to find a contractor able to finish the work.

Others are still discovering damage from the storm, some of which is extensive. A local social service provider says some Iowans are still living in unlivable conditions.

“People are still living in homes that are not habitable,” said J’nae Peterman of the Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit Waypoint Services. “Especially when you look at mobile home communities that we have not even been able to allocate many if any resources to quite yet.”

Many are still waiting. For an insurance check. For a contractor. For a sense of security. For the next storm. A full year later, some Iowans say there’s no getting past the derecho: the memories come flooding back every time it rains.

August 10, 2020 Derecho by the numbers

  • at its peak, 400,000 homes and businesses without electricity
  • 7.09 million trees damaged or destroyed, per Iowa Department of Natural Resources
  • $3.125 billion paid out by private insurance companies as of July 30, 2021, per Iowa Insurance Division
  • 17,291 insurance claims remain open as of July 30, 2021, per IID
  • approximately 16,200 new trees planted by Trees Forever and the City of Cedar Rapids as of August 2021
Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter