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In 2008, residents of Iowa waited a day for a major disaster declaration when an EF-5 tornado struck Parkersburg. That twister cut through Black Hawk and Butler counties, killed nine people, and injured dozens. It destroyed nearly 200 homes, totaling several millions of dollars in damages.
President George W. Bush granted then-Governor Chet Culver’s disaster declaration request within 24 hours. Culver used a provision in the federal code available to all governors: If a catastrophic event is so severe, the state can ask for a waiver to begin the flow of federal help immediately.
It’s been a week since the massive derecho storm hit. Thousands of Iowans — already struggling and frustrated due to the COVID-19 pandemic — are now left without homes and hot food and many were in their seventh day without power on Sunday.
They wonder where the help is.
“We cannot pull ourselves up by the bootstraps without boots,” Desiree Sade, a Cedar Rapids resident, wrote in an online interview with IowaWatch. She spent several days coordinating help for disabled and elderly residents.
The help is coming, state leaders say. Governor Kim Reynolds said a comprehensive disaster assessment must be done first to get the disaster declaration.
At a news conference Friday, she said her staff expected to submit the request Monday. The request was submitted later Sunday.
On August 10, a huge storm ripped up trees, flattened corn fields, and left the landscape littered with downed electrical poles, remnants of roofs, and semi trailers turned on Iowa’s highways. The term “derecho” was first used by a University of Iowa professor in 1888 to describe the widespread straightline windstorms. Last week’s derecho traveled 700 miles in 14 hours with winds of 112 miles per hour.
With more than 50,000 cases of COVID-19 and — as of Sunday — 975 deaths, the devastation brought by last week’s derecho feels like an insult piled on injury.
We are gathering data for request, governor’s team says
Between 8 and 8:30 a.m. on Monday, leaders of Marshall County communities will be allotted five minutes each to discuss disaster updates with state officials, according to an email from Reynolds’ team. It will be Reynolds’ second visit to the town since the derecho.
“I don’t have anyone to send,” State Center Mayor Steve Sodders, a former Democratic state senator, told IowaWatch. “I can’t go. My guys are already working overtime digging out from the storm and we get five minutes to tell her what? We don’t even know what is going on yet.”
“I was watching out the window and it was incredible the way the wind was whipping up, then down, and then swirled up,” Sodders said in a phone interview on Sunday.
Although the town sustained significant damage — one person was rescued from his car smashed by a tree limb — it only lost power for about 10 minutes. The city has its own electric company. In that way, Sodders said they are lucky.
Reynolds is facing questions from Iowans criticizing what they see as a lack of urgency to ask President Trump for a federal disaster declaration.
At a news conference in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Reynolds said she and her team were working tirelessly putting together all the necessary paperwork for the federal government.
Called a preliminary disaster assessment or PDA, it would gauge the scope of damages associated with a natural disaster or other catastrophic event.
Reynolds told reporters she had spoken to Trump once since the storm. The president assured her when she submitted the request he would work to issue the federal declaration “within the day,” she said.
According to Pat Garrett, Reynolds’ communications director, the governor’s team is following the formal PDA process and “assembling the best damage data we have.”
IowaWatch asked why they weren’t using the same 2008 waiver provision for a single county like the Parkersburg declaration. In the case of the derecho, that would mean Linn County would be issued a federal declaration and Cedar Rapids could potentially secure much-needed resources.
Garrett said the governor was following a different process to allow for more aid and pursuing a “major disaster declaration.”
IowaWatch pointed out the 2008 designation was that of a major disaster. Garrett agreed but said it was “limited in scope” and Culver had to go back several times and ask for more.
However limited in scope, that declaration allowed for immediate assistance directly to Butler County, and eventually included Black Hawk and surrounding communities. It also assigned a federal coordinator to work with state and local authorities and established a central location to assist families face to face. Not only does a federal disaster declaration help cover costs incurred by state and local government, direct monetary assistance is also available. Although the state declaration provides some direct individual payments for losses, the federal declaration again offsets the ultimate cost to the state taxpayers.
The state process for disaster declaration appears to be limited and then expands as the devastation becomes clearer. Reynolds issued the initial declaration the day of the storm, which covered six counties, but not Linn County with Cedar Rapids. As of August 14, Reynolds had issued five disaster proclamations due to the derecho covering 27 counties.
At the end of the Friday news conference, a reporter asked if any aid already in the state could be used. Reynolds said her team was “looking at everything.” She said they would check if tweaking the CARES funding would be allowed.
According to the latest federal guidance, CARES Act funds cannot be used for anything but COVID-19 related expenses and cannot be used to cover revenue shortfalls or expenses that can or will be reimbursed under any other federal program.
“This is beyond us”
Iowans remember the storms of 2008 — a summer of tornadoes, severe weather, and massive flooding. Parkersburg was not the only disaster that year.
Cedar Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, was submerged when the Cedar River crested 20 feet above flood stage. But officials there are saying the devastation by last week’s derecho is more widespread than the historic flooding.
The 2008 flooding hit a specific section of the city, said Kristin Roberts, the president and CEO of the United Way of Eastern Iowa. Other areas fully functioned.
“This affected the entire city,” Roberts said. “That is the challenge to work around. Everyone is in the same boat.”
The derecho left Cedar Rapids at a near standstill — no one goes to work, communication is slowly being restored, everyone focuses on the next need. Roberts couldn’t leave her neighborhood for two days because of the downed trees.
On Tuesday, Reynolds saw the destruction. Cedar Rapids, whose town logo is a tree, had half the canopy ripped away. Reynolds was going to go again on Thursday for a news conference, but it was held Friday. (Vice President Mike Pence made a campaign stop Thursday in Des Moines to launch the Farmers and Ranchers for Trump coalition. Reynolds accompanied Pence to Living History Farms near the capital, where he met with some farmers and looked through copies of pictures of flattened cornfields. Later he was the keynote speaker at a private GOP fundraiser in Urbandale. Pence didn’t visit a single farm.)
Residents have struggled to find gas for generators and food and water. Neighbors and strangers are coming to their aid.
Desiree Sade, the resident helping disabled and elderly, has been getting food and other supplies through a Facebook-based fundraising campaign. As of Saturday, donations totaled $3,000.
“My late father was disabled and had he been alive he would’ve been trapped in a second-floor apartment with no power, no way to get ahold of me, and no one to help him,” Sade said. “I know many of our seniors do not have the luxury of having family that are able to assist them during these times.”
Sade’s own home was damaged; the derecho took out a big pine tree and part of a fence. There was also damage to the house and garage.
“We put our house on the back burner for now as far as most cleanup goes, because we feel like others have more pressing issues that we can help with,” she said.
“Like a bomb went off”
A spot did not exist in Iowa’s second-largest city that didn’t sustain damage, city officials said.
“It basically looks like a bomb went off,” said Michael Hachey, a resident of Cedar Rapids. He and Andrew Alberts, also of Cedar Rapids, were among the many professional workers cutting trees for residents needing fast help. They were in Cedar Rapids for the 2008 flood.
“It’s not just low-lying, riverside areas that were affected,” Hachey said about this storm, “although 2008 was devastating.”
“We’ve heard a lot of people say that they’ve purchased these homes in this area for the mature trees, and everything, and now they’re gone,” Alberts, a lifelong resident of the city’s northwest side, told IowaWatch.
Tree removal companies ranged from small cutters like Alberts and Hachey to those with cranes, necessary to remove huge trees from house’s roofs. Companies with cranes were charging in the $15,000 to $18,000 range in some instances.
Blake Rowland, who lives on Grand Avenue Southeast, said this is the worst storm damage he’s ever seen in Cedar Rapids. “Everyone felt something from it,” he said.
Kavin Martin, who lives about a block away from Rowland on the same street, used a generator for temporary power that kept his food from spoiling. Surrounded by fallen trees and power lines along the street, Martin said the toppling trees missed his house and car. “I feel blessed,” he said.
Roberts said 14 out-of-state organizations are headed to Iowa to help. One is the United Cajun Navy out of Louisiana, bringing in food and other supplies. The Cajun Navy assists hurricane victims, according to its website.
The need is great and will go on for some time, Roberts said.
“God bless every single person who has helped their neighbor,” she said. “This is beyond us.” She urged residents to give grace to leaders who likely have had property damage or injuries and to also watch out for scams when giving a donation.
”Down to the dime”
Back in Marshall County, Maureen Gummert is frustrated.
“We are sick and tired, and there isn’t a way for us to go get help, and there is no help in sight,” she said.
Gummert lived through the 2018 tornado that took out a good part of town but spared lives. She and her wife, Shawn, are currently recovering from COVID-19 and are raising a 5-year-old daughter with a rare genetic disorder. Fortunately, they have a generator.
“We can’t just pick up and move to a hotel with our special needs child, who needs a special bed and is on a special medication schedule,” Gummert said. “But there isn’t gas,” she added. “People had to drive 50 miles to get gas for their generators.”
Some parts of town have power; others don’t. With the massive number of trees straining on power lines, it isn’t safe for crews to even get in.
Sodders told IowaWatch that the residents of State Center, like neighbors in Cedar Rapids, pulled together to clean up. But as a small town mayor, he worries about money.
“We are still trying to dig out from COVID,” he said. “We took a financial hit from that, and it is still going on. But now with the storm, I don’t know where we’re going to have to pull money from.”
Sodders and the workers in State Center are keeping track of the money the city spends on disaster clean-up, “down to the dime.”
Because Marshall County is one of the 27 counties Reynolds declared state disaster areas, the city can recoup the cost of clean up. But, Sodders said, a federal declaration is needed because in essence it frees funds to pay back the state for the cleanup and means Sodders and other mayors facing an already rocky fiscal outlook won’t have to consider raising property taxes on citizens who are already suffering from the one-two punch of COVID and the derecho.
“Federal dollars are taxpayer dollars and they are there for a reason,” he said, “just like when a hurricane hits down, south Iowa’s federal taxpayers help foot the bill for those folks suffering.”
This story was originally published by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.