Darkness and Despair
Iowans Desperate for Assistance after Devastating Summer Storm
BY ALANA SCHREIBER
Tim Kriz was out delivering mail on August 10 when the sky first began to darken. A postal worker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for more than a quarter century, Kriz isn’t afraid of a little rain interfering with his route. But on this day, he soon encountered a storm that would have trees bending and branches flying?culminating in a heavy horizontal downpour.
?I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,? Kriz remembered.
Too far from his postal?truck to run back for safety, Kriz crouched beside a house to protect himself and the bundles of mail he was carrying. The resident inside the home banged on her window and called to him, ?Would you like to come in here??
?It’s been 25 and a half years now and I have never gone into a customer’s house to wait out a storm,? Kriz remarked. ?That changed on August 10th.?
Kriz was welcomed by a young woman who told him she was studying to become a chiropractor. The two watched from her living room window as 60-year-old trees slammed to the ground, fences flew down the street, and the front doors of neighbors? houses swung open and shut with a loud crack.
After 45 minutes, Kriz finally opened the front door, took a look around, and thought, ?This looks like a war zone.?
Postal Worker Tim Kriz; Fallen trees block a home in Cedar Rapids. (Photo by Alana Schreiber)
The damage was caused by what’s known as a derecho, a band of arched thunderstorms with Category 2 hurricane winds. It ripped through 700 miles of the American Midwest earlier this month. Carrying winds of over 100 miles per hour, the storm caused a huge amount of damage throughout Iowa; in fact, more than 10 million acres of corn and soybean fields alone were torn apart. In all, 43 percent of the state’s crops were destroyed, a heavy blow to a $10 billion industry central to Iowa?s economy. There are four known deaths reported so far, and dozens of injuries.
But demolished farms weren’t the only casualties. Ferocious winds tore the roofs off businesses throughout the state. Entire buildings were smashed open by falling trees. It’s estimated that as many as 8,200 homes suffered significant damage.
Cedar Rapids, the state’s second largest city with around 126,000 residents, became the epicenter of the storm. According to reports, more than 800 buildings suffered a partial if not total collapse, and at least 20 school buildings sustained some kind of damage. One of the deaths occurred in Cedar Rapids when a man riding his bicycle was struck by a falling tree.
On August 18, I found myself in Cedar Rapids. I’d been visiting family in Iowa City when I first learned about how intense the storm damage was and I knew I had to make the 30-minute drive to Cedar Rapids to see for myself.
The individuals I spoke to, many on their front porches, agreed on one thing: they need more federal help to recover from this storm. They said the Trump Administration has offered up only a sliver of the assistance requested. They also say it almost seems as if no one else in the country really cares, or even knows about, what happened.
On Friday August 14, four days after the derecho did its damage, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds finally requested a federal disaster declaration that would provide $3.99 billion in Federal funding. Days later, on August 17, President Trump signed an emergency declaration to support Iowa?s recovery, yet approved only $45 million of the proposed funding, which will provide for debris removal and repair to government buildings. Funding for damaged homes and farmland as well as individual assistance had yet to be resolved.
Assistance from State and Local Governments has also been scarce. While many Iowans were eligible to apply for Food Assistance Replacement and Individual Disaster Assistance Grants through the Iowa Department of Human Services, filling out those forms requires electricity. And any help with physical labor has been meager, given that the trees and debris kept Iowans trapped in their communities?or in some cases, their homes?for days at a time. The day I drove around Cedar Rapids, the majority of tree-lifting and debris-cleaning was done not by government employees, but by community members.
The Iowans I spoke with say the storm came on quickly, striking almost out of nowhere. On the southwest side of town, Monica L Banks, a pastor at the New Disciples Christian Church, was getting ready for a Zoom meeting on August 10 when the power went out. ?I’d weathered storms in North Carolina and tornadoes in Nebraska, but this was different,? Banks said. ?The building began to shake, trees were uprooted, our street was just totally destroyed.?
Pastor Monica L. Banks; The storm’s strong winds permanently bent or knocked over trees outside of Coe College in Cedar Rapids. (Photo by?Alana?Schreiber)
Banks eventually crowded in the lower stairwell of her apartment building (it doesn’t have a basement) with other residents. What followed was a week of cold showers, non- perishable meals, and watching as medical teams carried elderly and disabled tenants down three or four flights of stairs before the power was finally restored. Still, as of August 20, tenants were still awaiting the return of cable, phone and Internet service.
The power outages weren’t exclusive to Cedar Rapids. In the wake of the storm, nearly 170,000 Iowans statewide were left without electricity and more than a week later, many were still waiting for their lights to turn on. A week later, that number dropped to somewhere between 50-70,000. As of August 21, more than 9,000 Iowans were still without electricity. Among them was Jon Biegen.
Biegen, a 31-year-old New York transplant, was asleep in his home in Cedar Rapids when the storm hit. ?I had no idea this was coming,? he said. ?Many of us didn’t get a warning because it was just categorized as a thunderstorm, so there were no sirens.?
A collapsed tree initially blocked Biegen from leaving his house but he and his roommate eventually made it out and decided to help check on seniors in nearby retirement and care facilities. ?A lot of the children and grandchildren of these residents are out of state, and the landlords live far away as well,? Biegen said, ?So it’s hard for them to get help.?
Upon entering Oak Hill Manor, a home for senior citizens in low-income brackets, Biegen realized many of the residents had sustained injuries as a result of the storm. Some even had broken bones, likely due to falls as they tried to maneuver through the darkness. He did his best to get them help.
Most of these seniors had also been forced to throw away food and insulin that perished without proper refrigeration. And many, Biegen said, can’t afford to restock. In response, he started a Facebook fundraiser and quickly raised $5,000, which he used to buy groceries and supplies for those in need.
Jon Biegen gathers food to donate to senior citizens; Residents at a Cedar Rapids apartment complex try to cool off during the power outage. (Photos courtesy of Jon Biegen)?
Raymond Siddell, a realtor in Center Point, Iowa, about 15 miles north of Cedar Rapids, was trapped inside his house when the storm first hit. After enduring 45 minutes of fearsome winds and rain, he made his way to Cedar Rapids, sometimes driving through neighbors? yards just to avoid the fallen trees that blocked the roads.
According to Siddell, Red Cross Volunteers showed up to offer basic food and housing equipment, but their resources were limited. So that night, Siddell started a Facebook group hoping to bring together Iowans in need of help after the storm, called the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page.
?I started that in my house with no electricity, no cell service, and very little data,? Siddell explained. ?I thought it was just going to connect neighbors to neighbors. But soon it grew to 100 people, then 10,000, and now over 50,000.?
Through this Facebook-based organizing, Sidell, along with friends and neighbors, has been hosting food-and-supply distribution sites throughout Cedar Rapids. Residents can come by for a free hot meal and get supplies such as diapers, toiletries, charcoal, and groceries.
But Siddell readily acknowledges that local supply efforts can only go so far. ?I’m meeting people every day who have nowhere to go,? he said. ?A lot of people are experiencing partial, if not complete, homelessness. The shelters are full, there’s no housing assistance, no help.?
Raymond Siddell at the donation site he organized in Cedar Rapids; a home in Cedar Rapids is smashed in?by a?fallen tree. (Photos by?Alana Schreiber)
Along with providing food and supplies, Siddell and his fellow volunteers are also handing out tarps and tents for people currently without other shelter. But Siddell agrees that a tarp is nothing more than a Band Aid for displaced families. ?We’re trying to supply the basic needs here,? he said. ?But we can’t supply housing. We don’t have the funds or the resources to do that.?
He added, ?But FEMA does. Where are they? Why are they not here? Why do we have people sleeping in their car, in their yards, in a tent, because they can’t go in their house? It’s just not fair to our community.?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is typically deployed to devastated communities after natural disasters, often bringing mobile homes for displaced individuals. After more than a week went by in Iowa without a FEMA truck in sight, the agency was finally authorized by the Trump administration to come and offer help to assist farms and businesses; individuals, however, were still left to fend for themselves.
That is, until August 20, when Trump amended his original declaration to authorize FEMA assistance for individuals. The Iowans I spoke with, however, said they have yet to see that?individual assistance in action, or even a single FEMA mobile home.
Many of the Iowans also said they feel as if the government is prioritizing crops over people. In her initial request of nearly $4 billion for federal assistance, Governor Reynolds asked that $3.7 billion ?be set aside for the crops, reserving just $300 million to help individuals. As of August 21, most of that money was still pending approval.
?The crops are going to grow back next year,? Siddell said. ?There’s nothing we can do to regain what we?ve lost, it’s too late in the season. But people need safe places to live right now.?
Jon Biegen, the volunteer at various senior citizen residences, felt similarly. ?It’s been disheartening to see the national coverage so focused on corn crops,? he said. ?I feel for those farmers, but there are individuals who have been without power for days. It’s disheartening but it’s not surprising.?
But for some Iowans, the loss of crops has been the loss of their livelihood. Kerry Rathje, a 34-year-old TransAmerica employee married to a farmer, was at home with her husband and kids when the storm hit. They live on a 200-acres just outside of Atkins, Iowa, about 20 minutes west of Cedar Rapids.
Kerry Rathje of Atkins, Iowa; The Rathje Family’s tractor shed was destroyed in the storm. (Photo by Alana?Schreiber)
A friend in Grinnell had given Rathje a warning that the storm was approaching, so she ran into the basement with her family to wait it out. Within minutes she watched sheet metal fly through her backyard and water flood into her basement. The family’s front window then broke open, and 130 miles-per-hour winds burst through her house.
?It was like an earthquake,? she said. ?Everything was rattling.?
After 45 minutes, the Rathjes went upstairs to assess the damage. Their house had survived, but everything else was destroyed. ?This farm has been in the family for over 100 years,? she said. ?Now the machine shed is gone, the cow barn has collapsed, and the other barn has only one wall left. We’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars lost due to damage.?
Power returned to Rathje’s home after four days, but there has been no federal aid. ?When the President approved FEMA I thought we were finally gonna get some assistance,? she said. ?But no one has come to help aside from family, friends and neighbors. We?ve lost everything, but nobody is thinking about us.?
The Rathje family’s Atkins, Iowa barn was destroyed in the storm. (Photos by Alana Schreiber)
For many farmers, the derecho only exacerbated existing problems. A recent drought has already caused a shortage in corn and soybean crops, which have now been further devastated by the storm.
And of course, looming over everything, is COVID-19.
On Tuesday August 18, Madison Keith, a teacher from Tiffin, Iowa, stood outside Polk Elementary School in Cedar Rapids handing out free lunches. ?Food security has always been a big issue since schools closed in March due to the virus,? she said. ?A lot of our schoolkids are already on free and reduced lunches, but now it’s not just the kids, it’s whole families.?
Keith and the other volunteers with Kids on Course, an organization dedicated to prioritizing the health and safety of students during COVID-19, are also aiming to help families currently experiencing homelessness.
?I know a ton of students that live at Cedar Terrace, and those apartment complexes basically got wiped out,? she said. ?A lot of the families have to sleep in tents or under tarps. They?re just starting to get emergency shelter.?
Madison Keith handed out free meals outside Polk Elementary School in Cedar Rapids; A baseball field backstop in Cedar Rapids was mangled in the storm. (Photos?by Alana Schreiber)
Meanwhile, with an increase in people using emergency shelters comes an increased risk of COVID-19 infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s difficult to properly and effectively social distance at homeless shelters.
The storm also highlighted existing disparities when it comes to accessing help and resources. If the lack of electricity is an inconvenience to some, it’s an almost insurmountable challenge to those with disabilities. Catherine Geerts, 56-year-old Cedar Rapids resident, returned to a dark apartment complex surrounded by fallen trees after the storm. Both Geerts and her roommate have cerebral palsy, but while Geerts maintains some mobility, her roommate requires a motorized wheelchair.
?My roommate couldn’t charge her chair because there was no power,? Geerts said. They didn’t know what to do.
Cedar Rapids resident Catherine Geerts; A volunteer speaks with residents after dropping off supplies at a Cedar Rapids apartment complex. (Photo courtesy Jon Biegen)?
Geerts and her roommate eventually got their hands on a generator to power the wheelchair, but it didn’t last long. After a few days, the roommate had to be taken to a group home for people with disabilities. Every day, Geerts checks in on her, then returns to their house, which was still without power until the evening of August 21.
?When I got home, tears were flowing,? Geerts said, upon seeing light in her home for the first time in 11 days.
Others with disabilities faced a myriad of previously unimaginable storm-related issues. Garret Frey, a 38-year-old author and employee for the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Advisory Commission was rendered quadriplegic at the age of four after a motorcycle accident. Because he depends on a ventilator to survive, Frey spent the first night of the storm sleeping in his car.
?It was the only way to charge my ventilator,? he said.
Initially, Frey reached out to the Red Cross and the State Emergency line but he claims they ?were no help whatsoever.? Frey and his mother eventually decided to drive down to Missouri to stay with extended family while they waited for power to return to Cedar Rapids.
?There are elderly and disabled people suffering here,? he said. ?The federal government is helping out businesses and farms, but they?re not helping out us.?
Garret Frey is a member of Cedar Rapids’ Americans with Disabilities Act Advisory Commission; Sarah Martinez is an executive director at Access 2 Independence, a center for independent living in Iowa
These stories sounded all too familiar to Sarah Martinez, executive director at Access 2 Independence, a center for independent living. In the days since the derecho, Martinez and her team have been visiting different mobile home parks and low-income houses throughout Cedar Rapids, trying to reach individuals with disabilities who were affected. During their outreach, individuals were found trapped in their homes due to a lack of functioning elevators and no electricity to call for help.
?The emergency planning within different cities and counties has shown a lot of gaps,? Martinez said. ?In the disability community, people shouldn’t have to sit in their apartment for over a week and rely on their neighbors to be a resource. There should be assistance, there should be a program where the city knows that these individuals are at risk in an emergency. They shouldn’t be ignored.?
According to Martinez, LAP-AID, a coalition of community resources for people affected by natural disasters in the Cedar Rapids area, has not included emergency response specific?to people with disabilities. So aside from enlisting with the special needs registry in their individual counties that only addresses evacuation, people with disabilities often have little help from their communities when disaster strikes.
?I think we have a lot to learn from this event for future emergency response planning, and that includes making priorities for when power or communications are down,? Martinez said.
Almost everyone I spoke with agreed on the need for more media attention. Pastor Banks said some of her friends and family members from outside the Midwest only heard about the derecho when she made posts on Facebook, as opposed to finding out from a regular news source. But even Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter updates are still relatively few because, as Banks pointed out, ?many of us still don’t have power? and even re-charging a phone battery is impossible.
?We need reporters and we need cameras!? said Frey, who has been discouraged by the lack of press since his return to Cedar Rapids last Wednesday. ?We need to tell people what is needed and share our story of what happened.?
Residents of the Westdale Court Apartment Complex in Cedar Rapids try to pick up the pieces of their homes, and lives, after the storm. (Photos Courtesy of Jon Biegen)
?With national coverage comes help, comes aid, comes people willing to help those who don’t have home,? Rathje said. ?Our livelihood is gone and it feels like nobody cares. It’s disheartening, but we’re kind of used to it unfortunately.?
Zack Kucharski, editor of The Gazette, a Cedar Rapids-based newspaper, told The Washington Post, ?The lack of national attention is concerning, especially because there seems to be a correlation between attention and recovery dollars.? And yet Iowans’ own ability to share their voices has been restricted, ?because we’re still focused on being able to get out of our homes.?
In comparison with widespread headlines about the Democratic National Convention, the fate of college football during COVID-19, and the announcement of actress Lori Laughlin’s two-month prison sentence, coverage of the derecho seems to have fallen by the wayside. A timeline created by Real Clear Politics counted the number of times cable news outlets CNN, MSNBC, and FOX said the word ?Iowa? throughout all of 2020. According to the graph, mentions of the state barely rose above zero in the wake of the storm. This was somewhat enraging for Iowans, especially considering that the state receives more than 1,000 mentions during caucus season.
As the end of August approaches, Raymond Siddell and his band of volunteers continue to offer free food and supplies to community members. Jon Biegen still visits senior citizen homes to offer everything from food to small fans, and taking photos and videos that he hopes can shine some light on the conditions. Madison Keith continues to hand out hot free meals, Sarah Martinez visits her clients across the state, and Pastor Monica Banks offers Facebook Live services for her parishioners.
Damage sustained to a Tires Plus store in Cedar Rapids; a grave marker was knocked to the ground in a Cedar Rapids cemetery. (Photos?courtesy of Jon Biegen)
When I drive around the city myself, weaving around fallen trees in my path, I can’t help but notice the resilience of the community. Neighbors help lift the branches off of one another’s lawns, jump one another’s cars, and share their food. At Siddell?s distribution site, as I help pack boxes of diapers and toiletries for the customers, I’m reminded of a billboard I saw upon entering the town: Iowa Strong.
While they wait to see what kind of help the federal government might eventually offer, Iowans will continue doing their best to help one another. But still, how long can this perseverance endure?
?I’m standing at my home, looking outside, and I can’t see a single house that isn’t damaged,? Rathje said. ?We are Iowans, we are good at helping each other. But how do we help each other when we have all lost so much? We can only go so far.?
Back in Cedar Rapids, Tim Kriz has returned to his mail route, a route that now requires him to climb over trees and debris to reach the mailboxes. These are the same trees and debris he first saw fall from the sky two Mondays ago. They have yet to be removed.
But along his route, Kriz also sees the volunteers handing out free food and volunteer linemen who have driven from places as far away as South Carolina and Tennessee helping restore power. And as he delivers the mail, he thinks about the student on his route who opened her door to him.
Kriz knows he’s identifiable to those on his route by his post office uniform, yet at the same time, ?I was a wet and dripping stranger,? he said. ?So, to be welcomed in, in this day and age, it was kind and special. Makes you think humanity has a chance.? Kriz added one additional item to his delivery load this past week: a personal thank you card for that student?from him.
Iowans may not be happy about the federal response to this crisis, but now more than ever they?re grateful to have each other. Iowa Strong, indeed.
Alana Schreiber can be reached at
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