A Hurricane in Iowa? Who Knew?
Who knew that, last August 10, a powerful summer storm with hurricane-force winds had just slammed large tracts of rural and urban land in the upper Midwest? Apparently, not the establishment news media. Read on.
Late that morning, my wife and I were returning from an out-of-town errand to our home on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Weather advisories noted the possibility of afternoon and evening strong convective rainstorm activity, but we planned to be safely home by then.
Occasional local severe storms, accompanied by strong winds, heavy rain, hail, and sometimes tornadoes, are part of life in the American Midwest. We know the drill and simply make this reality part of summer life.
As we drove along under a clear blue sky, we noted the impressive acres of field corn, standing erect, vertical, and even interspersed with rich tracts of soybeans. With an abundance of recent seasonal rainfall, they looked to offer an abundant fall harvest.
Upon our arrival, weather reports signaled the approach of storm activity much earlier than anticipated. A mere twenty minutes later, the county’s outdoor warning system sirens began sounding. Local broadcast radio stations announced the imminent arrival of unusually strong straight-line winds estimated at 80 to 100 miles per hour and urged everyone to take immediate cover.
The house lights suddenly flickered and died. We quickly took shelter in the basement under a sturdy workbench and monitored developments with a portable broadcast radio.
Within minutes the roar began, accompanied by sounds of heavy objects striking the roof and grounds nearby. The home is in a wooded hilltop community with many tall trees, both evergreen and hardwood. From the racket, it was apparent that numerous specimens were downed. A few more minutes and broadcast radio and cell phone services intermittently faded, then died completely.
The wind, thunder, and rainfall finally subsided. We cautiously stepped outside and stared at a jaw-dropping spectacle. Everywhere were downed trees, broken tops, and large limbs. The debris, some of it more than six feet high, proved an agility test for anyone trying to step through the area. The only structural damage was to a nearby outbuilding. We would soon learn we were among the lucky ones.
(Image from the author’s private collection.)
Joining our neighbors, we began to explore the area. Debris covered roofs, some with whole uprooted large trees. The shared community road and adjacent public thoroughfare were impassible to wheeled traffic. The immediate primary imperatives were ensuring safety, then reopening the pavement to vehicles. We quickly joined the gathering ad hoc volunteer chainsaw army, residents taking the initiative and clearing the right-of-way.
This was a serious, wide-area disaster. As broadcast news service gradually returned over the next few days, we learned of prodigious damage to the electrical power delivery infrastructure, with a proliferation of downed wires, poles, and high-voltage feeder lines, both within the city and over hundreds of miles of rural roads. In this county alone, over 200,000 customers were dark, with some 500,000 statewide. Loss of communication made it impossible to contact friends and family across the city and in distant parts of the country.
Most businesses were closed, though some supermarkets operated minimally on emergency power and, without refrigeration, sold nonperishable goods only. Most convenience stores were unable to pump fuel or supply ice. Masses of debris required careful maneuvering while driving, and inoperative traffic control signals forced cautious stop-and-go movement.
We began venturing out to gather essentials where we could find them. A trip to an operating gas station in the next town took us past cornfields, alas, flattened. The long line at the station was reminiscent of the gas shortage years of prior decades, but its friendly crew directed traffic expeditiously and efficiently.
Official announcements from the public utilities informed area customers that the outage would last many days, and everyone settled in for a protracted minimalist bivouac existence. Residents did all they could to help each other cope with multitudinous challenges: food spoilage from the absence of refrigeration, water shortages, lack of air conditioning on hot, muggy days, no trash collection, and sold-out emergency generators and chainsaws. We were “camping out” in our homes, using flashlights, and recharging cell phones in our cars.
Local line crews, supplemented by teams loaned by other states, diligently set to work in their daily around-the-clock repair activity, even though many were dealing with their own home damage and power outages. They methodically worked their way through neighborhoods, to audible cheers as residents’ lights sprang back on. Ours were restored on the evening of August 19, the tenth day.
The nature of the beast
This was a derecho, a sort of “inland hurricane.” Unlike the derecho’s coastal counterparts, we don’t get days of advance notice. They just pounce, in ways that elude reliable prediction, and can leave profound devastation. This article informs the reader of the nature of this phenomenon, with a discussion about early research and the coining of the term by a nineteenth-century University of Iowa physicist. Tens of miles wide, this storm originated in eastern Nebraska and South Dakota, crossed Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, finally dissipating in Ohio, over 700 miles downwind. Its top reported wind speed in this area was 112 miles per hour, with estimates offered of as much as 130 miles per hour in some locations.
Some of the severest damage in the city was to residential and commercial structures in the western parts of the municipal area. Whole buildings had their walls and roofs blown off, or have collapsed entirely, either from the gale winds or large, downed trees. And numerous motor vehicles were rolled or crushed.
Several large apartment complexes are no longer habitable. Some of these areas were homes to a sizable population of refugees -- legal immigrants all -- from strife-torn Africa, all working diligently to assimilate into American culture. They were forced to set up makeshift shelters on nearby grounds and now compare this experience to being “back in the refugee camp” of their native homelands.
A prized feature of many Iowa cities is their cathedral-like tree canopies that line avenues and boulevards and provide valuable summertime shade. The storm destroyed an estimated 65 percent of Cedar Rapids’ treasure, some 23,000 publicly-owned trees. Restoration will take decades and tens of millions of dollars.
Remarkably, there were only three deaths statewide related to the storm.
Rural areas sustained extensive damage to crops, buildings, and agricultural infrastructure. Iowa’s governor Kim Reynolds has declared 27 of the state’s 99 counties as disaster areas and has petitioned Washington for $3.9 billion in federal assistance. President Trump made a brief stop in town on August 18 for a conference on assistance needs with the governor, local leaders, and Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst.
Yes, there were complaints of officialdom’s slow response. It is unfortunate that persons with health impairments were without power for medical devices and that people were sleeping on the ground for several days. And there was the predictable election-year political sniping at a governor, senators, and mayor, Republicans all. The complainers fail to consider the scale of this crisis and the truth that first responders, officials, and members of support organizations were themselves encumbered by debris-clogged driveways and streets, and also lacked electricity, radio, or cell phones.
Though this event was the dominant issue in local and regional news, the national news media were strangely silent for several days, an ironic contrast to their usual epic coverage of Atlantic hurricanes. Typical of the delay was this Washington Post article, published several days later. An appropriately cynical discussion of media disregard comes from Iowa author Cary Jordan. One might speculate that this part of “flyover country” has significance to the national media only during political caucus season and at the famed Iowa State Fair, with presidential wannabes admiring hogs, schmoozing with farmers, and flipping chops at the Pork Tent.
We can do this!
My takeaway from this is that Midwesterners, including Iowans, are a resilient lot, accepting hardship and setbacks, and responding with a can-do attitude and industrious sweat, with neighbors helping neighbors, citizens helping their communities and, ultimately, turning setbacks into triumphs. A prime example here is the rebuilding that took place following the 2008 Iowa floods. A glittering jewel in that recovery was the spectacular success in moving, restoring, and expanding the treasured and beautiful National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
We’re cleaning up, and we will rebuild, better than ever.