116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — On Aug. 10, 2020, as the sun beat down like any other summer day, Nicole Andrew gathered with a close-knit group of moms as their kids played in their northeast Cedar Rapids neighborhood, toothy grins hidden behind little masks, trying to make the best of things amid the spread of COVID-19.
Suddenly, Andrew’s neighbor who closely monitors the news emerged to warn the moms that storms were coming. A thick, almost black cloud hung overhead as she ran outside to pick up loose items.
Sensing this would be a serious storm, she took her two children down to the basement and closed the door. Ten minutes into the rain, she heard a bang. Then, the electricity went out. She opened the door to insulation pouring down her stairwell.
Be strong for the kids, she thought to herself. She eventually took them to her car in case the house came crashing down. And they didn’t step outside until the rain stopped.
When they finally came out, Andrew said it was clear their house was crushed in. After dark that night, Andrew and her family carefully drove past fallen trees and downed power lines to stay with a local relative.
The derecho’s hurricane-force wind gusts had toppled a tree right into their house, rendering it one of more than 1,000 properties the city of Cedar Rapids placarded to mark as “do not occupy.”
Andrew shuffled her kids around from a relative’s basement to her mom’s house, then to a hotel, an apartment and back to the basement once more while continuing to pay the mortgage on their uninhabitable home. Most of the belongings they could salvage remained in storage.
A fully furnished two-bedroom rental unit at Granite Valley Apartments on C Avenue NE remained their home when the first anniversary of the storm came in 2021, and ultimately until May 31.
“Everybody else was able to move on,” said Andrew, 39, her voice wavering with emotion. “And not us.”
Ever since that fateful day the storm tore through town, Andrew and her children’s lives were drastically altered as she battled contractors, worked with attorneys and navigated her insurance company to ultimately get a $205,000 sum paid out to repair her destroyed house.
About two weeks ago, just shy of the second anniversary of the storm, Andrew and her two kids finally moved back into their home, with a new roof and completely remodeled, modern interior.
Scanning city streets, it appears Cedar Rapids area residents are largely on the path to recovery from the 2020 derecho that pummeled Linn County, the epicenter of the costliest thunderstorm in modern U.S. history. Where blue tarps sat atop buildings, there are now new roofs and shingles. Forestry crews grind stumps where stately oaks and maples stood for generations, making way for citizens to replant saplings that will in time morph into a lush emerald canopy.
Despite the visible progress, the derecho still looms large over a small but still sizable number of Cedar Rapids area property owners every day while their homes have only recently been fixed or still await repairs, through no fault of their own.
Those who couldn’t swiftly make repairs to storm-damaged properties say their efforts stalled as they were swindled by out-of-town contractors, waited in limbo for insurance settlements, hired labor while contending with high demand around town for the same services and grappled with lagging supply chains or cost spikes.
On average, the city of Cedar Rapids issues between 10,000 and 11,000 building permits in a given year. But as property owners looked to fix fences and patch up parts of their homes the storm tore to shreds, Cedar Rapids Building Services staff approved roughly double that amount for the year following the derecho.
In fiscal 2021, the budget year that spanned July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, and included the derecho, the city issued 23,445 permits. The number of permits issued in the 2022 budget year that ended June 30 fell by about 9,600 to 13,761 permits.
Overall, according to the applications, the city has issued over 14,000 permits attributed to derecho damage. The valuations attributed to these permits exceed an estimated $150 million.
City Building Services Director Kevin Ciabatti said staff will never know the exact number and valuations for many reasons — people don’t report if the repairs they’re making are derecho-related or the application doesn’t require the valuation be reported, for instance.
Repair work has slowed significantly since the storm. According to the city, nearly 4,000 permits related to the derecho were issued in the two months after the storm. In the last two months, the city has issued less than 50 derecho-related permits.
The dwindling number of permits issued suggests factors contributing to delays including insurance settlements, contractor availability and material backlogs or cost spikes are subsiding, Ciabatti said.
For those who experienced major damage like Andrew, Ciabatti said, some property owners have walked from the buildings and opted not to repair, some have demolished and others have made repairs or are using the opportunity to remodel and make improvements. There are some who still remain in limbo.
Shane Trimble, 46, who lives in southeast Cedar Rapids, is one of those residents who hit a roadblock trying to fix his home. Trimble said a tree hit his house and damaged his roof, and he is dealing with sagging floors, cracked walls and extensive water and mold damage. The garage door, paint, siding, gutters, deck, windows — all ruined.
“The house is just falling apart,” Trimble said. “ … It’s like, do we sell and get out from under it?”
His insurance company paid $23,000, according to Trimble, but he estimates the total cost of damage to be around $70,000. Trimble said the company has failed to reply to further emails and phone calls, and stiffed his family on costs it initially said it would cover such as a generator to power his disabled father’s oxygen supply.
When it rains, water still seeps into his home. As a result of the structural damage, Trimble said he doesn’t consider it safe for his 70-year-old father to stay there, so he moved his dad to a nursing home about seven months ago.
Trimble still lives in the house with his girlfriend, and his four children visit. He hopes to hear back from his insurance company soon so he can resolve the remaining repairs and leave the stress behind.
“I would just like the repairs so the house can be maintainable, livable and my dad can come home — the same house it was before the derecho,” Trimble said.
Bridget Bravenwolf, 45, a single mom living in northeast Cedar Rapids, said her ex, who owns the house she rents, has helped complete the biggest repairs, especially a $8,600 shingle and roof repair and several thousand dollars to fix her fence. Insurance covered the roof, but other work remains.
Bravenwolf’s garage door is cracked. Her front screen door and railing lost their battle with the wind. The awning and siding also are in need of fixing.
Overall, she estimates the remaining repairs could mount to $8,000 or so. With gas prices at a high for most of the summer, inflation driving up the cost of everyday items and surprise expenses such as car repairs crunching her budget, Bravenwolf said she hasn’t been able to muster the money needed to patch up the damage.
And she’s juggling all that while raising kids ages 8 and 12. She has three others who live outside her home.
“There isn’t enough money coming in, though, to afford the other things,” said Bravenwolf, who works a retail job but is looking to get back into health care. “ … There are things that I just can’t do. I have to have gas for the car to be able to live too, so I pick my battles.”
After storm, contractors strike
Though months have lapsed since the derecho struck, Ciabatti said his biggest worry remains fraud, as he hears anecdotally about residents — some of whom are now working through the court system — who are trying to get money back from contractors who took cash without doing the work or after doing a shoddy repair job.
After an out-of-state contractor’s repair job made Andrew’s home even more unlivable, she said, her insurance company paid about $33,000 of the $83,000 the contractor said she owed. After communicating with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Andrew said unless she spent the time and money to sue — and still risk losing in court — there wasn’t a more efficient mechanism to hold contractors accountable for doing the work they promised.
The Olsons, of Marion, say they’ve been defrauded by contractors three times, amounting to an approximately $26,000 loss, after the derecho destroyed a barn, machine shed, shop, chicken coop and fence and damaged their house. Insurance has paid about $300,000, and the couple said they’ve spent upward of $40,000 out of pocket. Julie Olson said at this point, they just want their money back to try to do the work themselves.
“The derecho hit and now we’re hit again,” she said. “ … (Contractors) can disappear and you’re left standing there with nothing. How is it possible in this day and age?”
It took months for them to find a contractor who would even take on the repair jobs, her husband, Loren Olson. said, and now the lack of accountability for contractors is stealing their joy as they look to move on with their lives.
“It’s hard to even fight this fight properly,” he said. “We’re not folks that have a lot of extra to our names.”
— Get three bids from registered contractors in writing
— Never pay upfront before seeing the bid
— Be leery of people knocking on your door, and instead work with a referral
— Call and make sure contractors are licensed with the state
— More information is available on the Building Services page of the city website, cedar-rapids.org
‘Nothing is the same’
Having been on the front lines of disaster response two years ago, walking from property to property to take stock of the destruction, Ciabatti said he’s astonished how far Cedar Rapids has come in the last two years, as the vast majority of property owners have made repairs.
“That says a lot about the resiliency of our community and our citizens,” Ciabatti said.
For those like Andrew still coping with the aftermath of the derecho’s devastation, moments of normalcy are fleeting.
Andrew on Friday night made her first dinner in the remodeled house, considered a fan favorite in her home — “taco bake,” which is modified nachos with meat, cheese, salsa and layered dip with chips.
But Andrew said the storm severed several relationships — the neighborhood isn’t quite the same, the derecho’s ferocious winds seem to have robbed her children, now ages 4 and 8, of their innocence, and she, too, has changed.
People assume she’s excited to be back home. Still, she’s in search of a sense of stability.
“It’s really hard,” Andrew said. “Nothing is the same as before at all.”
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