Construction crews are still a regular presence on the north side of Marshalltown, where one year ago an EF-3 tornado carved a path through residential streets and the community’s downtown.
A crew working for Habitat for Humanity cuts pieces of beige siding to patch up a family home hit by the storm. Contractor Dan Warnell said the siding was torn off in the wind and flying debris knocked holes in the roof. Still, the home could be recovered. Not the house next door.
“Now, this house is getting tore down in about four or five days,” Warnell said, pointing out blown-out windows and paint-stripped siding that must look much the way it did after the storm. “Yeah, the tornado wasn’t nice to this house,” he said.
The tornado that hit Marshalltown was one of 19 that spun out of storms in central Iowa in one afternoon on July 19, 2018. Twisters also dropped near Ankeny and Bondurant and a tornado destroyed part of the Vermeer machinery plant in Pella.
The Marshalltown tornado travelled a path nearly nine-miles-long and up to two-thirds of a mile wide, with winds estimated around 144 mph. More than 1,800 homes had some damage from the storm and the city expects around 60 will eventually be demolished.
One year later, some parts of the city are set to rebound better than ever. But the residents who could least afford the damage will still be recovering from it years from now.
Paying the bill
The route of the tornado can be pieced together by following the trail of homes with freshly laid shingles, bright, new vinyl siding and tall trees left with spindly canopies. But while many homes are back to normal, other families are still working through how to afford costly repairs.
Maria Gonzalez and Amber Smith walk down a street where the city says some of the homes are structurally unsafe. The case managers for MICA, a nonprofit helping families recover from the storm, explain that appearances can be deceiving. Even homes that seem to be fixed up may still be in trouble.
Gonzalez points to a sea-green stucco house on the corner with a new, fire engine-red, steel roof. Before the roof could be installed this year, winter snow and spring rain broke through, leaving moldy walls and wet wiring.
“We’re talking anywhere between $150,000 to $200,000 in repairs,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a lot of money. It’s buying a new home, practically.”
That would be more than a lot of people could afford, Gonzalez said, but it’s made worse by the fact that the storm hit a low-income neighborhood in Marshalltown. She knows from the families that applied for help that even modest repairs are unaffordable for many families. “It’s either feeding your family or trying to repair your home," she said.
It’s a sign of how a community’s poorest residents often bear the brunt of natural disasters, according to Sara Hamideh who studies disaster recovery at Iowa State University. Hamideh surveyed and interviewed Marshalltown residents in the storm’s path and learned that many homes were underinsured. While they may have been covered for the value of the house, that was sometimes too little to cover the cost of actually repairing the damage.
“Insurance would only pay if you demolish the house, which of course for the household makes the trajectory of their recovery much longer and much more difficult,” Hamideh said. One challenge for families who have had to relocate is that they may need to pay rent when the house was paid off before.
A request for individual assistance from FEMA to help pay for things like rent and repairs was denied, but several agencies and nonprofits have been trying to fill the gap. MICA alone has distributed more than $2 million in state aid and donations to 780 families. That includes money for food vouchers and rental assistance, but the agency said the vast majority has gone toward home repairs. New cases are still coming in as insurance claims run out or problems with contractors come up.
The Marshalltown Long-Term Family Recovery Committee has raised $800,000 to field requests from families that have exhausted all other sources of assistance. MICA executive director, Arlene McAtee, who is a member of the committee, expects it may take another $300,000 on top of that to meet residents' needs.
“We can get there but don’t have the money at the moment,” said McAtee. “It looks 1000 times better and you still see work that needs to be done.”
Looking on the bright side
Despite the long path ahead, Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer is upbeat. Greer points out changes downtown where several buildings were destroyed and the courthouse in the square is still shrouded in scaffolding. Businesses are bouncing back, Greer said. The pizza place bought a new oven, the bike shop is expanding into extra space, a downtown barbecue joint put in a new bar, and some buildings are refurbishing old facades exposed by the storm.
The courthouse is getting new wiring and updated security.
“I’m excited to see what this town is going to look like,” Greer said, adding that there is even a silver lining to some of the damage in the neighborhood nearby. “It’s almost like forcing us to upgrade. It’s just fun to drive by a residential area and see a house that really didn’t look very good now have brand new, pretty siding on it. And that’s just popping up all over town.”
For many people in older homes who can afford repairs, the storm may have been a blessing in disguise. But there was already a housing shortage in Marshalltown. Losing homes makes it worse, Greer said, and he knows it will be harder for families who moved away to move back. In some parts of town, home values may not be high enough to justify rebuilding homes that had to be torn down.
“That’s been a problem getting developers in town to do housing even pre-tornado,” Greer said. “So, I know there will be green spaces available. We’ll have some mini-parks around town where two or three (homes) have come down at the same time, I think. It will be a different look.”
It’s one lesson Hamideh said other cities can take away from the storm, to look for ways to help low-income residents repair homes before a disaster hits or even to help them buy better insurance to make them more resilient.
“If we don’t want to see these long-term struggles after a disaster, the time to act is before a disaster happens,” Hamideh said, because it’s easier to keep the homes that are there, and the people who live in them, than it is to replace them.