Storm shreds through Iowa City, leaving thousands without power, likely for days

A large tree fell on house on Oakland Avenue in Iowa City during storms on Monday, shown here on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
A large tree fell on house on Oakland Avenue in Iowa City during storms on Monday, shown here on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Lee Hermiston/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – Plan for the worst and hope for the best.

That’s the message Tuesday from Johnson County Emergency Management Director Dave Wilson. Wilson said it could be three to four days before power is restored throughout the county after a powerful storm ripped through the state on Monday.

Monday’s derecho – a powerful, straight-line wind storm – was similar in ferocity to a storm that ravaged the county in 1998, Wilson said.

Terry Clark, 72, of Iowa City, said it reminded him of something else.

“It was like being in a short-term hurricane,” said Clark. “The wind was blowing. Things were whipping. The rain was driving. Instead of last for a day or so, it only lasted for an hour. But by then, there was a lot of damage done.”

On Tuesday, Iowa City continued to clean from the powerful storm that touched every corner of the city. Seemingly every yard had a mile of branches and leaves sitting out front, waiting to be picked up by city crews. Some city streets remained closed due to fallen trees ensnarled in downed power lines, like the one near Clark’s home on the east side of Iowa City.

“We have multiple neighborhoods that were impacted either in a minor way or a major way,” said Assistant Iowa City Manager Ashley Monroe. “We have streets that are clearly impacted by fallen power lines or service lines.”

Wilson told The Gazette on Tuesday the storm had 80 mph winds with some amateur reports of 113 mph gusts, Wilson said. Trees throughout the county were torn, shredded and uprooted. Semis had been tipped over on the interstate. Debris was scattered everywhere.

“Basically, anything that wasn’t stapled down … became a flying projectile,” Wilson said.

There were no reported fatalities and injuries were confined to weather-related vehicle crashes. But there were some close calls.

TREE DEBRIS:Here's what to do with tree debris after the storm

Monroe said city crews worked late into the night to clear fallen trees from streets. Monroe said the city is working with MidAmerican Energy to remove trees caught up in power lines. Traffic moved slowly in areas throughout the city and long lines greeted those trying to buy gas or get food at drive-thrus that were open Tuesday.

Some traffic signals in the city remain without power and some city facilities lost power, as well. Monroe said the city obtained generators to get those facilities up and running in order to continue to provide services to citizens.

Johnson County Ambulance Director Fiona Johnson was at work during the storm – the ambulance service ended up responded to 40 calls for service between noon and midnight Monday – when she got a phone call from a neighbor. Due to poor cell service, Johnson couldn’t hear what her neighbor was saying.

“I called home and was greeted by my partner who said a large tree had just come down in the yard,” said Johnson, who lives near Muscatine Avenue and Friendship Street in Iowa City. “Thankfully, it just missed the house.”

The impact from the tall tree – which one neighbor estimated at being 100 feet tall – shook the house, Johnson said. It damaged her back deck, fencing and other items in the backyard and narrowly missed her home.

Less than a mile away on Oakland Avenue, a massive tree landed on the roof of a home. On Summit Street, large trees lay in yards and across the street. The sound of whirring chainsaws spread in every direction.

Jacob Simmering witnessed the storm from his Seymour Avenue home.

“It was incredible how dark it got and how loud the wind was,” he said.

When the storm passed, neighbors banded together to help each other out, he said. Some helped Simmering move a tree out of his yard. Other neighbors went around with chainsaws to help cut up debris around the neighborhood.

Simmering said one of the biggest challenges after the storm was getting to his daughter’s daycare. Multiple routes were blocked by trees or low-hanging power lines.

On Taylor Drive, Jeff Metz was helping his landlord clean up debris that had fallen in his yard during the storm.

“I like a good Iowa storm,” said Metz, 60. “But not quite this good. It was a mess.”

Wilson said Linn County was hit “10 times worse” than Johnson County. The magnitude of damage is highest in Solon, Wilson said. He added that densely populated areas of Iowa City and Coralville wild mature trees also saw a lot of damage.

Wilson said a countywide disaster declaration was made Monday after the storm. That allows the county to access state resources in responding to the storm. Should federal resources become available, the county will be able to access those, as well, Wilson said.

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