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Nearly two years after Iowa derecho, recovery begins at 2-Jo’s Farm in Benton County
Ongoing dispute with insurer prevented repairs at family farm
After nearly two years in limbo, Jodi and John Philipp finally can move on from the derecho.
Since the August 2020 storm devastated their lives and livelihood, the Benton County couple have been at a standstill, unable to repair the damage to their property due to a dispute with their insurance company.
That is until late March --- 555 days after the derecho and after more than a year of litigation — the couple finally settled the lawsuit with the insurer, freeing them to clean up their home and salvage what they could from the property’s various buildings.
For the first time since the storm, Jodi recently crawled through the wreckage of the indoor riding arena she and her husband built on the property, dubbed 2-Jo’s Farm, to lay eyes on her office, at the western corner of the building.
When Jodi emerged, she did not feel hopeful. Nearly all the items inside were unsalvageable after spending months exposed to the elements.
She thought of the antiques they kept in some of the farm’s other buildings, of the family heirlooms inside the house and of the countless memories she and John had built together.
“It breaks your heart because it didn’t have to sit like this for two years,” Jodi said, tears in her eyes. “We could have saved stuff if I could have come in here.
“If the insurance company had done something right off the bat, who knows what we would have got out of here. There’s not going to be much out of here now.”
'We just need to move on’
For months, the farm, located on Highway 30 west of Cedar Rapids, stood as a time capsule to Aug. 10, 2020.
Debris scattered across the property remains where it was thrown during from that storm. Blue tarps on the roof of the house have been reduced to ribbons. The barn leans at a precarious angle to the east, in the direction the hurricane-force winds took when it wrecked havoc across a seven-state region.
The derecho barreled across the Midwest in 14 hours, becoming, at the time, the costliest thunderstorm event in U.S. history at $11.5 billion, according to estimates from national weather experts. At least $7.5 billion worth of damage was in Iowa alone, according to state officials.
The Philipps were driving home from Iowa City when the derecho hit, battering their car with torrential rain and 140 mile-per-hour wind gusts.
Their son called them from their house, warning them to take shelter as the roof of the back porch above him nearly ripped away. They received one last text telling them “prepare yourselves” before they lost service.
It took them hours to get home to the property as they navigated around tipped over semis and picked their way around downed trees and live wires. None of the landmarks along the way home were left standing.
“We almost drove right past our farm,” said Jodi, 63. “It was unrecognizable.”
But the hardship was just beginning.
Their insurer, a small mutual insurance company based in the area, claimed the derecho-related claims were significantly less than the total cost of damages Jodi and the couple’s lawyer argued she and John were owned under their nearly $1 million policy. Jodi asked the insurer not be named because the company has threatened litigation over her public statements about the dispute.
While the lawsuit with the insurer slugged its way through the court, the Philipps were obligated to leave the damage to their roughly 12-acre farm as is. Greg Usher, the couple’s attorney, said they were held back from doing any work on the property while various inspections were conducted by engineers hired by both sides of the suit — a process that took months.
Jodi and John moved about 25 miles away into their other business, a bed-and-breakfast in Chelsea called Periwinkle Place Manor.
In the midst of it all, both John and Jodi have struggled with serious health issues. Jodi has a brain tumor and John, 72, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer following a series of strokes in 2019. Jodi said John’s cancer has not progressed, but his illness and a serious bout with COVID-19 in late 2020 left him physically limited.
That’s on top of the mental and emotional toll this process has taken on the couple.
They accepted a settlement from the insurance company at just a fraction of what they argued they were owed. But Jodi said it was time to end the months-long limbo in which the couple had been trapped.
“There are so many other things going on, we just need to move on and salvage what’s left,” she said.
The cleanup begins
On April 23, 622 days after the derecho, the first major cleanup effort at 2-Jo’s Farm began.
Once the debris is cleared and remaining items are collected, the goal is to put the property up for sale, within the next month.
The couple is relying mostly on those willing to volunteer time and equipment to help them clean up. The nearly two years has been a financial strain on the couple, and they don’t have the means to hire workers, she said.
The Philipps’ relatives, friends and acquaintances have converged on the property, first clearing out the storm debris around the indoor riding arena at the eastern edge of the property.
Many of the items discovered in the building were connected to the Dear Santa program the couple founded more than 20 years ago to provide Christmas gifts to children of families in need. The Philipps are known locally for portraying Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Fire and Ice Parade in Cedar Rapids for 16 years.
They had raised reindeer on the farm for several years.
It was hard work hauling wood and pulling out items underneath collapsed walls, but the optimism grew as the group began to see progress in their effort. Among those volunteers was Amanda Brant, the couple’s Realtor and friend, who said the cleanup reminded her of when her home was red-tagged following the 2008 flood.
“It’s hard to see a friend go through that,” she said.
Brant said the process was emotional for Jodi, particularly as she found priceless belongings that brought back memories. At one point during the day, she discovered a wooden cabinet built by her great-great-grandfather when she was a child.
“You would think it would get easier, but it’s not,” Jodi said.
Despite the heavy emotions of the day, Brant said Jodi kept her great sense of humor, “regardless of what was going on.”
"You have to admire someone who has that kind of optimism after what they’ve been through,“ Brant said.
Jodi said she is optimistic about the future. She hopes to reopen Periwinkle Place Manor this fall, and plans to keep working as Mrs. Claus for the upcoming Christmas season. All that’s left is to finish the work.
“I have hopes and timelines in my head,” she said. “We’ll just see if I have the stamina to see it through.”
Jodi and John Philipp have another request out for volunteers to help them with another cleanup day at the farm on Saturday, May 14. Details can be found on the 2-Jo’s Farm Facebook page.
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