116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowans are well-accustomed to the extremes of Mother Nature, but last year’s derecho was unlike anything we’ve seen. As we mark the anniversary of that devastating day, I’m not aware of a single event in recent Iowa history that has done more to showcase the qualities that make this state special.
With winds recorded as high as 126 miles an hour, the derecho was essentially a 40-mile wide tornado: a third of our counties were impacted, thousands of homes were damaged, millions of acres of crop were flattened, and 596,000 households lost power. To put the destruction in perspective, Cedar Rapids alone saw 6,000 homes and properties damaged and lost a staggering 70 percent of its tree canopy.
But there was something even more remarkable than the storm’s destruction: the resilience and generosity exhibited in the aftermath by countless Iowans in the private and public sector alike. The derecho response demanded tight cooperation between state, local, and federal officials, as well as a willingness to do whatever it took to deliver relief. And all this happened during a pandemic.
All hands on deck.
The day after the storm hit, I was on the ground to survey the damage personally. I spoke directly with President Donald Trump to explain the scope of the devastation — a story the national press was not telling. A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration was issued in under a week, opening all federal government recovery programs in record time.
Emergency Management teams at the state and local level leapt into action. The Department of Transportation was dispatched to assist with debris removal from Day One, devoting as many as 279 staff members per day. By Aug. 14, four days after the storm hit, 150 members of the Iowa National Guard were positioned to respond for debris removal and other relief missions. The Guard’s reassuring presence eventually grew to over 200 members, who helped remove nearly 30,000 pounds of debris.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) distributed over $11 million in food assistance, approved 423 households for disaster assistance, and dispatched staff door-to-door to check on residents who received case management services.
The agency also worked with an array of nonprofits to form a coalition that assisted the local refugee and immigrant population — many whose homes were destroyed — to find adequate temporary housing. If housing doesn’t seem like something DHS would normally coordinate, that’s because it’s not. But that was the kind of all-hands-on-deck response the storm required.
Meanwhile, Iowa companies like Hy-Vee and Fareway, worked with the state’s own Feeding Iowans Task Force to donate food, water and supplies. Small business owners like Willie Ray Fairley gave away hundreds of meals a day to people whose own refrigerators weren’t working.
But for all the herculean efforts undertaken by officials at all levels of government and the private sector — I’ve barely scratched the surface — nothing will stick with me like the stubborn optimism and kindness of the average Iowan. For me, one particular story stands out.
The utility workers had never seen anything like it. Welcome to Iowa, I said.
Utility crews came from all over the country to assist in the recovery, working long hours to restore power to impacted areas. These were experienced workers who had done similar work in disaster zones nationwide. In the weeks after the storm, I spoke with them to get their perspective.
They told me, first of all, that the damage from the derecho was as bad as the aftermath of hurricanes whose names we all know. But for them, that wasn’t the biggest surprise.
In other disaster zones, they said, tensions usually start running high around Day 10. At that point, the residents who have lived without power have understandably had enough, and the utility workers who are working around the clock are often the target of that frustration.
But Iowans were different, they said. They didn’t show that frustration on Day 10 or Day 15 or ever. In fact, it was the opposite. On a daily basis, these out-of-state workers were greeted with warm handshakes, emotional expressions of gratitude and even raucous cheers. The utility workers had never seen anything like it. Welcome to Iowa, I said.
This story is representative of countless like it — and it goes far beyond “Iowa nice” to reveal a humanity and goodness that make us proud to be Iowans.
One year later, we’ve made amazing progress in our recovery, but the job isn’t over yet. The state remains committed to supporting recovering communities in every way possible.
Still, no official policy can replace the restorative power of engaged, resilient, and mutually supportive local citizens. But as the visiting line workers learned, our state has more than enough of those to get the job done.
Kim Reynolds is governor of Iowa.