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One Year After The Derecho, Some Residents Call The Rebuilding Process A 'Nightmare'

Kate Payne
Apart from being tarped over, damaged apartment units at the Westdale Court complex on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids look almost unchanged since the days after the derecho hit on Aug.10 last year.

One year ago, a derecho packing winds comparable to a Category 4 hurricane carved a path of destruction across Iowa, damaging scores of homes. One year later, some residents are still discovering storm damage, fighting for insurance payments and struggling to rebuild.

Heidi Sebetka thought her trailer on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids was OK. It seemed OK. Right up until it wasn’t.

Rushing home to the Kirkwood Estates trailer park on Aug. 10 last year, she was astonished to see it still standing.

“When I came up around that corner, I just…I cried the whole way,” Sebetka recalled. “I thought there's no way...”

Her home was still there. But the carport had been ripped off the side of the trailer, taking parts of the roof with it.

“The roof was not good,” Sebetka said. “But I didn't even stop to think about what that meant then, you know what I mean?”

There was a lot going at the time. The coronavirus was raging. A single mom and a cancer survivor, Sebetka was thankful just to still have her job at a landscaping company.

She and her two youngest kids had lived in the trailer for about 10 years, ever since they lost their old house after her cancer diagnosis. She knew full well the risks of living in a mobile home, but she also didn’t have renters insurance and didn’t know who to call. So she waited.

Some Iowans still discovering storm damage months after the derecho

Then in July, 11 months after the derecho, standing in her son’s bedroom, she noticed a leak. She looked up and her stomach dropped.

“I was like, ‘that's the beginning of the end.’ Because again, I've lived in trailers for a while and we've gotten off pretty good…and it's fully leaking,” she said.

When IPR visited in July, the ceiling in her son’s bedroom was cracking open, buckling with water damage.

“I guess there's a full blown hole there. Which is I think maybe where the awning flipped and punctured a hole,” Sebetka said. Which, I just thought we lost shingles…”

Kate Payne
Heidi Sebetka and her two youngest children live at the Kirkwood Estates trailer park on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids. They didn't discover the full extent of their derecho until July, when the ceiling of a bedroom began leaking and cracking open with water damage.

Sebetka was able to get help tarping over the worst of the damage. She posted in a derecho support group on Facebook, wondering whether the tarps could last her through the winter. The answer: a resounding no.

Contractors told Sebetka the entire roof had to be replaced at a cost of more $8,000, money she says she does not have.

“I'm hearing like $8,500 ish, is from the couple quotes I've got so far,” she said, “which, you might as well say $85 million at this point.”

One year later, thousands of insurance claims still outstanding

A year after the derecho, thousands of Iowans are still dealing with storm damage and trying to find the money to make their repairs.

According to the state, at the end of July, there were more than 17,000 insurance claims still open, let alone the scores of Iowans like Sebetka who didn’t have insurance.

Across town on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids, Peg DeKeyser flipped through page after page of insurance paperwork.

“I thought, you had insurance, and you had a problem, and the insurance paid,” DeKeyser said. “How naive was I? I can't believe I was that naive.”

DeKeyser has been on her own after her husband developed dementia and moved into a care home.

She says fighting for her insurance payments has been a nightmare. She didn’t get the reimbursement for her roof until mid-August.

“I also have a fissure in the ceiling that was never there before,” she said, pointing. “These houses moved. They moved. And one wonders if in fact you're actually living in a structurally sound house.”

Kate Payne
Peg DeKeyser has been navigating the post-disaster bureaucracy on her own, a process she describes as so punishingly complicated, at times she has felt her "sanity is in jeopardy".

Fights with insurance companies push some to the breaking point

She’s still fighting over a ceiling with water damage, a porch that’s no longer level and a garage that she says has to be totally rebuilt.

She gets these checks for $3,000 or $4,000, but has no idea what the money is supposed to be used for. She’s assembled a massive spreadsheet trying to decipher it all.

“There's just no way you can figure it out unless you take the time to do an Excel spreadsheet,” DeKeyser said. “Luckily, I can do that. But what about the women who can't do that?”

Meanwhile, the cost of materials have skyrocketed, doubling the estimates for some homes. DeKeyser figures she has some $33,000 worth of work that still isn’t covered. And she says she can’t shake this feeling that her insurance company is making the process punishingly difficult on purpose.

“I do believe that women my age, especially if we're alone, they think they can wait us out. And I think that they do. And I think that it is a tactic of theirs,” she said.

For DeKeyser and so many others, the derecho is only the latest in a series of struggles. DeKeyser is still mourning the loss of one of her sons to suicide, while watching dementia steadily steal her husband away. At times, the fight to restore her home is almost too much to handle.

“One thing just ends up falling on top of the other until it becomes so overwhelming that you have to cut something…or your sanity is in jeopardy,” DeKeyser said. “I just thought, I can't do this anymore. I just can't.”

A year later, service providers say some residents still living in unlivable conditions

For some, the post-disaster bureaucracy is too much. They don’t have the money or the bandwidth to get their repairs done.

Federal disaster support has fallen far short of what residents say they needed. According to reporting by the Washington Post, out of the 22,000 people who applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for derecho assistance, 19,000 were told they were not eligible.

J’nae Peterman, director of housing services at the local human services nonprofit Waypoint Services, says it was “kind of common” for FEMA to initially reject nearly every applicant, with the expectation they would file an appeal.

“Everybody's application gets denied first time around and it's up to that individual to read through their denial letter and know how to appeal it,” Peterman said. “But when you have low income households that are already in crisis prior to this because they're being impacted by a pandemic and then you have a derecho hit…people get that denial letter, they throw it away. And now they panic. And what are they supposed to do next?”

A full year after the storm, Peterman says some families are still living in unlivable conditions.

“People are living in homes that their roofs are still leaking, they have mold in their home…we have people that haven't even been approved for their insurance claim yet and they're still going back and forth,” Peterman said. "Debris that's still blocking doorways that they can't safely get in and out of their homes..."

Peterman says the number of residents experiencing homelessness is “astronomical”. She acknowledges that Waypoint has barely even reached mobile homes, where residents with some of the least resources suffered some of the worst damage.

A year after the derecho, damage from the freak inland hurricane can still be seen all over eastern Iowa, in the shattered trees, the broken chimneys and the blue tarps, now tattered and fading.

But service providers say help is still available. Through the nonprofit Patch Program, overseen by Waypoint, the local nonprofit Matthew 25 and others, Heidi Sebetka was able to get her entire roof replaced in August at no cost.

Advocates hope more residents will do what she did and ask for help.