116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A year since powerful winds blew through the state and caused historic devastation in Eastern Iowa, many people who were in the path remain struggling with trauma the Aug, 10, 2020, derecho caused.
The emotional and psychological toll that natural disasters inflict on a community can linger for years. Still, according to experts, recovery can begin once impacted individuals start to rebuild and feel a shift to the “new normal.”
But what happens if you’re unable to rebuild? That has been the challenge for many, including the Philipp family of Benton County, whose surroundings remain bleak from the damage despite months of struggles with insurance — in addition to coping with life’s more routine challenges.
John and Jodi Philipp still are waiting to begin rebuilding their Van Horne farm. They are seeking additional payout on their claims with their insurance provider, and until that matter is settled, the Philipps haven’t begun the process of cleaning up the damage to 2-Jo’s Farm.
As a result, the destruction remains unchanged a year later.
Buildings on the property, including an indoor riding arena, are still mostly flattened from 100-plus mph winds. Undeterred by human intervention, tall weeds grow and birds have made their way into the rubble of the “western town” and into Santa’s House, where the Philipps would host holiday events for their charity called Dear Santa.
And with a year in the elements, whatever was salvageable on the roughly 13-acre property is likely gone, too.
“What we thought we’d retire on is deteriorating before our eyes,” said Jodi, 62.
After a year, it has taken its toll. Jodi wakes up most nights around 3 a.m. from panic attacks. She said she hasn’t spoken to a counselor or a doctor about her panic attacks, mostly because she has a hard time focusing on anything beyond her and her husband’s farm.
“I don’t sleep anymore,” Jodi said. “We’ve been wearing the same five outfits we bought at Dollar General for a year. You don’t have TV. You don’t have all the things that make it comfortable, especially when you’re going through this. You’re not concentrating on getting well.”
‘A different level of crisis’
Negative mental health outcomes in the aftermath of a natural disaster are common, experts say.
Though researchers say it’s hard to quantify the psychological impact, they say a substantial number of direct victims often go on to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder and other symptoms such as anxiety.
Outcomes can also vary. In the immediate aftermath of the derecho, the Cedar Rapids-based crisis prevention agency Foundation 2 staffed community resource centers across the area with counselors “from open to close each day,” said Chief Development Officer Katie Curtis.
“There were many people who came to access basic needs and, when given the opportunity to check in on their mental health, realized how much they were struggling and found comfort in being able to talk to someone ready to listen,” Curtis said.
However, officials in Cedar Rapids say the first anniversary of the derecho has brought many of those issues to the forefront now. By comparison, in other natural disasters like the floods of 2008, mental health crises were more immediate as more individuals were displaced from homes.
“It’s just a different level of crisis,” said J’Nae Peterman, director of housing services at Waypoint Services in Cedar Rapids. “It didn’t have that immediate mental health need. I think it's more long-term this time around.”
For those who have been traumatized by their experience, they may relive the day the derecho tore through their community any time a storm rolls in and the wind begins to pick up. It can trigger a response that their brain may struggle to reconcile, said Theresa Graham-Mineart, associate executive director at the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health.
“So when you think about the sound of the high wind and the really pounding rain, those kinds of sensory experiences trigger a biological response similar to what people experience when they saw the derecho,” Graham-Mineart said. “Even if you’re not in that storm, your brain doesn’t know that.”
And for those still dealing with contractors or otherwise working to rebuild, Graham-Mineart said those can become contributing factors to an otherwise traumatic event.
“Every time that (response) happens, every time that cycle is reinforced, it’s strengthened,” she said. “That’s why it's so important for people to understand trauma responses.”
Here are seven tools individuals can use to deal with traumatic stress, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
1) Use the “window of tolerance” concept to identify and talk about your current mental state.
2) Breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
3) Validate your experience: What you went through is real and harmful.
4) Focus on your five senses.
5) Think positively for 12 seconds.
6) Use a weighted blanket to help you sleep.
7) Use laughter to reduce stress.
More details can be found on Nami.org.
The derecho came as mental health services providers saw an increase in the demand for their services in recent years, particularly during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic that started in March 2020 in Iowa.
Foundation 2 reported more than 65,500 contacts — either through phone, chat or text — to its crisis line in fiscal 2021.
The previous fiscal year, there were nearly 45,000 crisis contacts. The jump in fiscal 2021 represented the biggest increase in outreach in recent years.
Overall, Foundation 2 has seen a 185 percent increase in crisis contacts between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2021, its data shows.
A stuck grieving process
The Philipps, who have owned 2-Jo’s Farm for 20 years, describe their feelings about the damage to their farm like a grieving process. John still is somewhat in denial, he said. Jodi still experiences a wave of anger each time they stop to check on the property.
“We’ve just been in limbo for a year,” Jodi said.“ We’re ready for something to be resolved.”
Many know the Philipps as Santa and Mrs. Claus, who they portrayed for 16 years at the Fire and Ice Parade in Cedar Rapids along with the reindeer they raise on the farm. They also founded a program 20 years ago called Dear Santa, which aims to provide Christmas gifts to children of families in need.
They’ve slowed down and stopped the Dear Santa program in recent years due to declining health. Jodi did don the Mrs. Claus this past Christmas with a friend stepping in as Santa, but the couple hopes to continue to keep that tradition alive together.
Beyond that, Jodi said they’ve just begun planning for their future. For some time they had hoped to be able to rebuild 2-Jo’s Farm, but as time passes, that possibility is becoming less likely.
Jodi and John have been living at their bed-and-breakfast in Chelsea, Periwinkle Place Manor, and hope to move into the house they own next door once they fix it up.
Once the insurance dispute is settled, they plan to salvage what they can and try to sell the property. She says after years working on a farm, she’d like to be able to travel across the country.
“We’re always just working,” Jodi said. “I told John, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just say, let’s go somewhere today?’ Even if its 200 miles away, it’d be fun to go someplace.”
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