Parts of Iowa Still Reeling From Powerful Storms, as State Battles Rise in Coronavirus

A farmer near Woodward, Iowa, on Aug. 20, walks through a cornfield damaged in the Aug. 10 derecho.

A farmer near Woodward, Iowa, on Aug. 20, walks through a cornfield damaged in the Aug. 10 derecho. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

A derecho with winds over 100 mph struck the state last month, causing widespread damage and coming on top of the pandemic.

When a powerful line of thunderstorms with hurricane-force winds, known as a derecho, tore through a swath of Iowa on Aug. 10, Lance Lillibridge’s 1,500-acre farm was spared from the worst of the damage.

But his neighbors two or three miles to the south were not as lucky. And even three weeks after the storm, the scene Lillibridge described in the area was grim one. 

“It's still flattened fields of corn,” he said on Wednesday. “When it first happened, the corn was green. But now it's all dying. So the fields are starting to turn brown. There are still grain bins out in fields. There’s machine sheds all over the place … Debris just everywhere.”

Even though Lillibridge’s crop survived, he’s still facing a major problem in the aftermath of the derecho. Amid all the destruction, he’s been having trouble getting a crew to come out to his farm, near the small city of Vinton, and install new grain bins that he needs to hold the specialty corn he grows after it’s harvested.

"If we don't get these bins up, I mean, it'll probably fold us,” he said. "We won't have anywhere to go with our corn. We're just sick over the deal."

Iowa is one of several states that has been hit this summer with a natural disaster on top of the coronavirus outbreak, and the economic crash the Covid-19 pandemic caused.

Louisiana is now dealing with even greater misfortune after Hurricane Laura slammed the southwest corner of the state with 150 mph winds on Aug. 27, ripping roofs off houses and, in some places, totally demolishing structures. Early property damage estimates for that storm are in the $8 billion to $12 billion range. Hundreds of thousands of people in the state remain without power and running water more than a week after the storm.

California, meanwhile, has seen nearly 3,300 structures destroyed and at least eight lives lost as destructive, lightning-sparked wildfires that began there in mid-August have scorched over 1.5 million acres.

Recovery efforts in Iowa are progressing. But, for some communities, significant difficulties still lie ahead. Lower-income families in the Cedar Rapids area have been displaced from storm-battered apartments. Thousands of houses in the state are said to be seriously damaged. And state officials estimate that millions of acres of corn and soybean crops were harmed.

“Covid just puts an added layer of strain on top of a disaster response, which in and of itself is complicated,” said Ben Rogers, a supervisor in Linn County, Iowa, home to Iowa’s second-largest city, Cedar Rapids, and hit hard by the derecho.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has estimated that the state will need about $3.9 billion in federal disaster assistance and that about 8,200 homes had been destroyed or suffered major damage.

President Trump approved a federal disaster declaration for Iowa on Aug. 17. 

“It’s astonishing, actually, to still see the piles of trees, branches and other debris lining streets waiting to be hauled away,” Reynolds said during a Wednesday press conference.

Reynolds’ office has cited preliminary estimates indicating that 3.5 million acres of corn and 2.5 million acres of soybeans were damaged. Iowa’s agriculture department said the state lost tens of millions of bushels of grain storage capacity just a few weeks before harvest time.

Crop insurance can help with the losses. But “it's never going to make you whole, it's never going to make you a profit,” said Lillibridge. 

He noted that, even before the derecho, many Iowa farmers were having a rough time as they dealt with drought conditions and other problems—like trade tensions between the U.S. and China and lower demand for corn to make ethanol—which dragged down corn prices during the past two to three years.

“A lot of us are extremely cash strapped,” Lillibridge said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue granted a disaster declaration for parts of Iowa this week that will allow emergency loans to flow to farmers in the state.

Severe derechos, like the one last month, happen in the Iowa region about once a decade, according to the National Weather Service. Significant ones swept through the region in 2011 and 1998. 

This time, portions of Linn County, as well as Benton County, where Lillibridge’s farm is located, had damage consistent with 100 to 130 mph winds, the National Weather Service says. Maximum estimated winds from the powerful storms were around 140 mph.

Unlike a tornado, which might pass quickly, intense wind gusts from the derecho blew for 30 to 45 minutes in some parts of Iowa.

(Video above shows the derecho sweep through a neighborhood in the Cedar Rapids area on Aug. 10.)

The derecho, and the recovery from it, come as Covid-19 cases and positivity rates for virus tests have been on the rise in the state. Compared to other states, Iowa had one of the biggest surges in cases at the end of August, Reynolds acknowledged on Wednesday. 

She suggested students returning to college campuses was one reason why cases were going up.

Due to the risks from the virus, local officials in Linn County had to find more shelter sites after the derecho than they normally would to help keep people spread out. Rogers said many people were wary of going to shelters because they were fearful of catching Covid-19.  

The storms damaged homes in the county and knocked out phone and internet service and electricity. Alliant Energy, a power utility in Iowa, said the storms left more than 256,000 homes and businesses without electricity and that crews had to replace over 3,000 poles.

There isn't a neighborhood in Linn County, Rogers said, that didn’t sustained some damage. 

In an interview during the last week of August, he said power had been restored to almost every home in the county and debris was getting cleaned up. The county said on Aug. 26 that it had hauled away about 25,543 truckloads, or more than 58,000 tons of storm debris.

The level of damage to homes in the county varied. Some may have only had siding blown off or needed minor repairs, many had roof damage, others are uninhabitable. 

Rogers noted that low-income apartments in the Cedar Rapids area were heavily damaged and said that figuring out long-term places to house people who lived in those units was one of the challenges that local officials were working to solve.

Some of those apartment residents are recent immigrants and resettled refugees from parts of west and central Africa and other places, Rogers explained, many of whom weren’t comfortable going to local shelter sites after the derecho and leaving behind their homes.

“A lot of people ended up camping,” he said. “A lot of tents popped up around their apartments, particularly around these emerging communities of immigrants and refugees.”

Eventually, Rogers said local officials thought of the idea of providing storage lockers where people could stow their belongings so that they might be more open to going to temporary shelter sites, without worrying that things would be stolen.

“We know that we still have to try and figure out for about 100 to 150 families some long-term housing,” Rogers said, but he added that this number could change.

In addition to the damage to homes and infrastructure, many large trees around Linn County were split or toppled by the powerful winds. Enough are gone that Rogers said it will alter the look of the community for years to come. “A lot of these trees are century-old oaks or elms,” he said. “We'll never recover those.”

“That in and of itself is heartbreaking," Rogers added.

Huxley, Iowa, a city of about 3,300, south of Ames, also suffered storm damage.

Households there went without power for about two weeks after the derecho, city administrator Rita Conner said. Conner said on Aug. 27 that while electricity had been restored, there were still internet outages in the city and phone service remained spotty.

The city hired contractors to clear debris, but Conner said residents pitched in heavily, working to clean up block after block. “You just saw amazing volunteer spirit,” she said.

After the storms, Huxley’s city government opened a cooling center to provide relief from the summer heat for people who'd lost power and didn't have air conditioning. The city also offered places to charge phones and microwave food, and four large dumpsters where people could drop debris.

“We're just dumping them, it seems like around the clock,” Conner said.

The virus, she said, hadn’t been a major barrier to the city’s response. “What happened was so impactful,” Conner said, “the virus became very secondary.” Many city residents who had to leave their homes, she said, went to hotels, or made other arrangements to stay nearby.

Conner said it’s hard to imagine how city leaders could have anticipated everything that’s happened this year. Along with the virus, the recession and the storms, Huxley had a water conservation order in place this summer as its supply ran tight (a water utility expansion project is in the works).

"When you think about it in the layer sense, all the things we've had to prepare for and react to, I'm not sure there's enough of a plan that you could write,” Conner said. “If we had been writing a plan last year,” she added, “I think we would've missed it by a lot.”

But Conner also said that, in her view, this summer’s events have highlighted opportunities to involve more of the community in emergency preparedness. She noted that Huxley is a growing city, but has a relatively small staff of only about 20 full-time employees. 

“I think the way people here have responded and jumped in,” she added, “we could have some tremendous leadership and resiliency.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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