116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last August’s derecho showed how fragile our society truly can be.
I’m not talking about the trees, power lines and roofs, which buckled, snapped and broke in the horrific winds. I’m talking about lives, and the social safety net we expect to catch us when nature or any insurmountable force knocks us down.
In the early, disorienting hours and days after the storm, the safety net seemed more like tissue paper.
There were the refugee families whose affordable apartments at Glenbrook and Cedar Terrace were smashed by the storm. They were left to live outside in tents as they waited several arduous days for help to arrive.
“We were saying that we are back in the refugee camp,” Immaculee Mukahigiro, a refugee born in Rwanda, told former Gazette reporter Alison Gowans. “It was hard to eat. We did not know what to do.”
Where was city? Where was the state? When would the National Guard roll in? Why isn’t this disaster inspiring more urgency and getting more attention?
Along with the worst, we also saw the best. With so many in need of food, water and ice, nonprofit organizations, businesses and ordinary people with grills and plenty of meat to share from disabled freezers fed multitudes. The Department of Human Services relaxed food assistance requirements. People with chain saws descended on local communities from all across the region and beyond, hoping to help with clean up.
Organizations and individuals helped their neighbors who had medicine in need of refrigeration or other health needs in the midst of a pandemic. Generators ran night and day, many with extension cords leading to more than one home.
The story of a shattered city did get attention. The governor showed up. The president arrived.
But as welcome and praiseworthy as these efforts were, they were triage care for a much deeper wound. So many living with fragile finances in precarious economic circumstances before the storm now had tarps on their roofs, structural damage to their homes, trees in need of removal and many other storm-related expenses they struggled to navigate or afford. Some couldn’t even go back to uninhabitable homes.
The pandemic exposed plight of low-income “essential workers.” The derecho blew away all doubt.
In the year since, local government and nonprofit organizations have stepped up to help and have done good, hard and impressive work, addressing repairs, the dire need for affordable housing and other continuing problems spawned by the storm. The city is spending $1 million in federal pandemic relief funds to address housing repairs.
But have we learned the lesson of those first days, when so many were left uncertain, frightened and vulnerable after 45 minutes in the grips of an inland hurricane?
I’d like to say yes. But at the Statehouse this year, for example, the derecho’s winds and its tough lessons barely made the flags sway.
Republicans who run the House and Senate spent far more of their time thinking up ways to kick people when they’re down. They cooked up bills intended to make it harder for Iowans to get public assistance and collect unemployment payments. Gov. Kim Reynolds, hoping to burnish her red state credentials, cut off extra unemployment benefits. She argued, basically, the payments were keeping lazy Iowans from seeking work.
Lawmakers slashed Reynolds’ request for more affordable housing funds. But they did provide $250,000 for tree planting.
Address the need for paid sick leave, wage theft by employers or the minimum wage? Forget it. Instead, they accelerated tax cuts mostly benefiting wealthy Iowans. And there’s persistent talk among GOP lawmakers about eliminating the state income tax and replacing it with a higher sales tax, a change that would disproportionately affect low-income Iowans. Our mental health system remains underfunded.
Also, refugees are not our problem, the governor says. Argue that race plays a role in this culture of indifference and an angry lawmaker might call your boss.
As for federal help, the Washington Post reported in May that of the 22,000 people who sought FEMA aid after the derecho, 19,000 were told they are not eligible. FEMA awarded $11.2 million to 3,084 households.
The same Post report cited a congressional advisory council that found FEMA programs are less accessible to disadvantaged Americans. "Through the entire disaster cycle, communities that have been underserved stay underserved, and thereby suffer needlessly and unjustly," the council reported.
And as climate change heats up, we’re going to see more disaster cycles in Iowa. Although attributing the derecho to the climate crisis is no slam dunk, we do know Iowa is seeing more heavy rainfall events and flooding. Losing 65 percent of trees in Cedar Rapids is making it tougher to cool homes in the summer heat, a fact that once again creates challenges for low-income residents.
The flood of 2008 hit low-income residents hard. Ditto the pandemic, which has yet to be defeated. We have leaders who are good at touring damage and declaring disasters, but who are less skilled at actually seeing the true needs, or are willfully blind. And natural disasters are just one among many challenges facing Iowa families trying to stay afloat.
They keep missing the lessons. So we remain fragile.
(319) 398-8262; firstname.lastname@example.org