Benton County officials scramble to assess damage against challenges of downed grid, pandemic

Courtney Hendryx, 35, cleans out the side yard of her home in Blairstown in Benton County with her sons, 10-year-old Eme
Courtney Hendryx, 35, cleans out the side yard of her home in Blairstown in Benton County with her sons, 10-year-old Emery Hendryx and 8-year-old Marcus Hendryx, on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Michaela Ramm, the Gazette)

Cleanup across Benton County was well underway by early Tuesday morning as residents began the tremendous effort of clearing off roadways and yards of debris from this week’s storm.

The derecho – a powerful, fast-moving storm capable of kicking up hurricane force winds – that swept through the Midwest on Monday caused a slew of damage throughout Benton County. The impact from the storm on the power grid has crippled communications, slowing down emergency management’s response and leaving the majority of the county without power for the coming weeks.

The 100-plus mile-per-hour winds also damaged dozens of homes and buildings, leaving many structurally unstable, and scattered debris and tree branches throughout the county.

In rural parts of the area, grain bins and other farms saw devastating damage. In Keystone, a town of about 600, the storm destroyed several grain bins near the main thoroughfare.

The extent of the damage is still widely unknown, according to Scott Hansen, coordinator for Benton County Emergency Management.

Crews were traveling throughout the county Tuesday to assess the impact in towns and rural areas in-person. Because downed power lines cut off some roadways throughout the county, it was difficult access to those areas.

It will be at least another day before county officials can even get ball park figures, Hansen said.

However, based on the information they’ve gathered so far, the damage is sure to range in the tens of millions of dollars, he said.

“This is a widespread event and it will take some time to recover,” Hansen said.

But coupled with the novel coronavirus pandemic, the county’s ability to respond to the crisis has been hampered, Hansen said.

“It’s a bad enough disaster with the wind storm, but with COVID-19, it’s a whole other issue,” Hansen said. “In my 22 years with emergency management, this is the worst one yet.”

Instead of establishing congregate sites for individuals whose homes were destroyed by the storm, the American Red Cross is instead working to find hotel rooms – a tedious and time consuming process. In addition, many of the nonprofit organizations that would respond to disasters, including the Salvation Army, are low on manpower due to volunteers’ concerns for the virus.

Much of the county was still without power by Tuesday afternoon. Given the extent of the damage to the grid, Hansen said residents should expect the power to be down for at least a couple of weeks.

Word of the outage prompted some county residents to attempt to travel as far as Nebraska for generators, according to local residents who spoke to The Gazette.

Blairstown Quick Shop was one of only a couple of businesses along Blairstown’s main thoroughfare were open Tuesday. Dozens of customers filtered into the darkened space throughout the morning to purchase ice.

The store had been without power since Monday afternoon. A generator powered a single freezer, but what food did not fit is considered a loss. It’s still unclear the extent of the damage to the property, said owner Jess Andrew.

“You roll with the punches yesterday, and then reality sets in a little more today,” Andrew said.

For others, the main priority was to begin clearing out fallen trees from their homes and properties. A large portion of a tree fell on the roof of a home at the corner of Pine and Walnut streets in Blairstown, punching a hole through the roof and causing several rafters to break.

Homeowners Mitchell and Courtney Hendryx were not home at the time, but in Georgia. They drove all night once a neighbor notified them of the storm damaged, arriving around 4 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“It’s devastating,” Courtney Hendryx, 35, said. “And to know how widespread it is for everyone in the community, it’s heartbreaking.”

Courtney Hendryx said her father, who owns a century farm near Shellsburg, saw massive damage to his crops and properties. Poor cell service as a result of the storm made it difficult for her to connect with him, but she said she was able to glean the road to rebuild will be long.

“It’s just disheartening, because I know my dad has put so much work into the farm,” she said.