HUFFPOST PERSONAL

Iowa Suffered A Natural Disaster Last Week. Why Are We Just Now Talking About It?

Iowans' niceness turned into anger — not at the lack of electricity or the work ahead, but because no one was paying attention.
Grain bins at the Heartland Co-Op grain elevator in Malcom, Iowa, were damaged by a powerful storm that swept through Io
Grain bins at the Heartland Co-Op grain elevator in Malcom, Iowa, were damaged by a powerful storm that swept through Iowa on Aug. 10.

In the aftermath of last week’s horrible derecho, which the national media virtually ignored, Iowa didn’t deserve this:

“Iowa helped foist Trump on us... I guess God’s Wrath is really a thing.”

“Heard but don’t care.”

“You get what you sow.”

And as for the national media mostly ignoring you? “Suck it up.”

These are just a few of the comments I read in response to a Washington Post article that ran four days after the derecho, a force of widespread straight-line wind storms, tore through my hometown of Cedar Rapids. Like many Iowans, the article’s author, Lyz Lenz, was lamenting the lack of national media coverage.

“Conservatives’ consternation over the new Cardi B single has gotten more attention than the Iowans left without power or food for what may be weeks. And all this, as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc throughout the state,” Lenz wrote.

I live in central North Carolina now, and first got word of last Monday’s storm when it hit my daughter’s home in West Des Moines. She sent me a cellphone photo of her battered garage and the tree next to it snapped off and lying on her neighbor’s roof.

Next I heard from my sisters Jeanne and Sue, who both suffered considerable damage to their homes in Cedar Rapids. While my daughter lost power only temporarily, my sisters lost power for days. Sue got it back on Sunday. Jeanne is still waiting. 

With winds reaching 112 miles per hour, the derecho pummeled Cedar Rapids for over half an hour. Little property was spared, and at least four deaths have been blamed on the storm. Facebook friend after Facebook friend posted photos and videos: The roof on my high school, hanging like a blanket over the side. A central air-conditioning air unit rolling along like tumbleweed. Metal grain bins crumpled like empty beer cans. Iowa’s largest ginkgo on the Cornell College campus in nearby Mount Vernon was beaten up along with more than 100 other trees. My friend Dee Ann, who has worked there for years, shared the report but couldn’t bear to see the remains of the ginkgo. 

“On Monday afternoon we acquired a skylight in our attic,” my friend Brenda posted along with a photo of tattered oak leaves poking through a gaping hole. When the “I’m so sorrys” came in, Brenda countered: They’re insured. Uninjured. They have running water, a gas stove. They can shower and eat. 

In other words, they were lucky.  

“Still without power, but not powerless,” my friend Joy posted four days post-derecho.

That humor, that resiliency, that looking to the positive — that’s my Iowa. 

Iowans are cleaning up their own messes while helping their neighbors clean up theirs. In the first days after the storm, when the majority didn’t have electricity and generators, and the gas to power them was tough to come by, they did the work fueled by peanut butter sandwiches and cold coffee. They did it largely without complaining because, as you’ve probably heard, they’re “Iowa nice.” 

But by Thursday, that niceness turned into anger — not at the lack of electricity or the work ahead. They’d been through the floods of 2008 and 2016. They know all about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No, what’s angered them is that they feel as if no one is paying attention — because, for nearly a week, no one really was. 

“I didn’t know that was happening,” my friend in Oregon said when I told her about the destruction in Iowa. 

She wasn’t alone. 

Except for following presidential candidates to small-town diners and county fairs before the Iowa Caucus, the national media largely ignores my home state. Most of the time Iowans don’t care. They’re used to being ignored. They’re part of the flyover states, after all. But Iowans wanted more than their 15 minutes of fame. Without it, they feared, the government might ignore them, too. 

On Sunday, nearly a full week after the derecho hit, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds requested an expedited major disaster declaration from the White House, asking for nearly $4 billion in federal aid to help 27 Iowa counties repair and rebuild after the storm destroyed or severely damaged 8,200 homes and 13 million acres of corn, about a third of Iowa’s cropland.

At 2:33 p.m. Monday, Trump tweeted: “Just approved (and fast) the Full Emergency Declaration for the Great State of Iowa. They got hit hard by record setting winds.” 

Trump is expected to be in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday to tour the damage and meet with Reynolds to talk about the local, state and federal response.

A couple of hours before Trump’s tweet, my friend Beth, who saves old houses and buildings most would bulldoze, posted on Facebook that a father-and-son team were going to clean up downed trees on her family’s property in exchange for taking their walnut trees to mill.  

“We’re still without power, after one week. A tree guy from Pensacola said this is easily a Cat 3 or 4 scene,” Beth wrote, referring to hurricane force categories. “The needs in the community are so vast that I’m curled in a fetal position, trying to figure out where to dive in. County residents like us have no pickup for their debris. People with wells and no generators are using buckets for toilets. I see buildings missing facades, barns toppled, windows blown out, orange placards posted on uninhabitable buildings. A drive is no longer a trip to a destination. It’s a slow crawl through chaos.”

An hour later, Beth was out of her fetal position and handing out bags of ice in a nearby neighborhood. “This woman called me an angel,” Beth posted, along with a photo of a smiling woman in a bright yellow tank top. “She’s really the angel because she gave her ice, my last bag, to her elderly neighbor.”

My sister Jeanne called. Still without power and with limited cell service, she was headed to her daughter’s house 20 miles away to take a hot shower. Jeanne spent three hours trying to track down an electrician to reattach the meter base to her house — a necessary step before the electric company can restore power. Finding an electrician when about 80,000 other people are also still without power is nearly impossible. One in Fort Madison, about 110 miles south, sounds promising. 

“If I have power before the end of the week, it will be a miracle,” Jeanne said. 

My sister Sue has one of the orange placards duct-taped to her house: “Unsafe to Occupy. Do Not Enter.” The storm tossed the tree in her front yard into a neighbor’s backyard two houses down. It peeled the roof off one side of her garage and house. She spotted a chunk of her roof in a culvert a football field away. Water poured into her house and basement. Siding, shingles and insulation were everywhere. But it was the three roof trusses that collapsed into one another that had deemed her house uninhabitable. She found out today the insurance adjuster won’t arrive until Aug. 28. 

Despite the “Do Not Enter” sign on their home, my sister and her husband aren’t going anywhere — even though insurance would pay for them to stay at a hotel. 

“We’re just avoiding that side of the house,” Sue said. “We’re fine.”

Iowans are fine. They will get through this. But they wouldn’t mind some help — and, from the ones who think Iowa deserves this catastrophe for helping elect Trump — some compassion. 

Annie L. Scholl, a native Iowan, lives in North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer and senior content writer for a Cedar Rapids-based company. She blogs at anniescholl.com and is at work on her first memoir.

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