116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Anyone who experienced last year’s derecho likely can recount exactly where they were when it happened. For Ashley Conner, a pediatric nurse for UnityPoint at Home Pediatrics Extended, you could say she was right where she need to be.
Conner, 28, of Oelwein, and her 5-year-old son were driving south on Interstate 380 to his doctor’s appointment when the storm hit.
“I could see all the semis on the interstate pulling over as well as additional cars, and at first I wasn’t sure why,” she recalled. “But then I saw the sickly dark greenish, gray, yellow color of the sky and the tree line in the distance just toppling down like a row of dominoes.”
When Conner saw nearby power lines swaying and then watched a transformer near the Blairs Ferry Road exit explode, she knew it was time to get somewhere safe and fast.
“We took the exit ramp as the storm arrived and the traffic lights at the top of the exit ramp were rocking in the wind,” Conner said. “A speed limit sign uprooted from the ground and went flying past my car.
“I was just trying to find somewhere safe to pull off where a tree or power line wouldn’t land on my car, but it was almost impossible to see anything between the torrential wind and rain. … I eventually, by some miracle, made it into the Walmart parking lot, but at that point it was too late for us to try and make a mad dash inside.”
When the storm was over, Conner’s vehicle had sustained some $6,000 in damage but she and her son were safe.
But then she could see the semi that she parked alongside was overturned.
“It had lights on, and at first I didn’t know if anyone was inside and part of me hoped not, but I rolled down my window to get a better look and found a face staring back at me. At first, I couldn’t tell if he was injured or hear him as the wind and rain became strong again, but eventually he gave me a thumbs-up after I mouthed, ‘Are you OK?’”
The two figured out that the truck driver needed to get out of his semi and into Conner’s vehicle so he could call for help. He struggled through the wind and rain — having to kick out the front windshield of his truck to exit the semi — but was able to reach the passenger side of Conner’s vehicle for some safety.
“The driver, whose name I found out was Alex, stated he was asleep in his bunk when he heard over the radio about the storm. He said he was trying to get into the driver seat and turn the semi so it was facing the wind head on, but unfortunately couldn’t do that in time.”
As the truck driver sat in Conner’s vehicle trying to contact his employer regarding the damaged semi, she realized he had cut his foot badly and was going to need medical attention.
“I called 9-1-1 but got a busy signal, but then when I reached an operator she said she didn’t know how long it would before someone could get to us,” she recalled. “At that point I knew this individual needed care promptly or he was going to pass out in my car from blood loss as he was already in a state of shock from having his semi tipped over and was now bleeding profusely from his foot.
“I looked for anything I had in my vehicle and found an old sweatshirt and roll of paper towels and told him to wrap his foot tightly and keep it on my dash as I put my vehicle in drive and headed toward St Luke’s Hospital.”
Trees were down blocking the emergency room entrance but she finally was able to get her patient into the ER.
“The whole ER entrance looked like a war zone with people flooding in,” she said.
In recounting the story, she noted, “I wasn’t worried about myself, but rather my son, my kids at day care, my husband at work, the truck driver and just essentially everyone that went through the storm. And I was amazed at the togetherness of everyone helping each other clear debris and damage, whether it was clearing streets or using chain saws to cut limbs.
“I also saw a gentleman my age help an elderly couple over a tree and through a flooded street to try and reach their house when the road they lived on was completely impassable. It was just a whirlwind of emotions.”
Her son, on the other hand, has simpler memories.
“He just remembers the truck and that mom took a man to the hospital with an ‘owie on his foot.’ He slept through most of it. How, I do not know.”