116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The other day, I was tossing out some papers and came across a wrinkled notepad. I’m glad I flipped through it to see if there was anything I needed to keep — it contained all the little notes I’d jotted down in the days following the derecho on Aug. 10, 2020.
It seems that everybody who experienced the derecho has their own derecho story. Mine began around noon that day when the sirens went off. Like a typical Millennial, I don’t have cable or local TV or even an AM/FM radio in my home. Instead, I’d looked at the radar on my smartphone, and since the weather app said “Rain in 36 minutes,” I decided that I had plenty of time to hop in the car and grab lunch to go at a drive-thru five minutes away.
That, my friends, was a bad idea. (My mother, who called me right after the sirens went off to make sure I was home, is going to read this and say “Well, duh.”) Instead of watching the storm from the comfort and safety of my sturdy brick home, I rode it out in my car, which I’d backed into my detached garage so I could see when the worst of it had let up and go back inside my home. It’d be five, 10 minutes tops, I thought, because even an intense thunderstorm doesn’t really last very long, right?
The following 45 minutes cured me of that assumption. I don’t recall being certain that I was going to die during that terrifying 45 minutes. But I also recall not being certain that I was going to live. Radar had stopped loading on my phone, and with winds like I’d never seen before, I’d begun to wonder if I was sitting in the path of tornado. Growing more fearful by the second, I called a friend who I figured could tell me from the TV broadcast if a tornado was headed my way. “Oh, everybody’s power is out,” she said. “It’s a big storm. But don’t worry, it’s not a tornado. It’s just wind. Just a lot of wind.”
My friend was right. It was just wind. Just a lot of wind blowing at 120 miles per hour, ripping up our community. She stayed on the phone with me for those entire 45 minutes, talking to me through my panic and listening to my every gasp and shriek and “Oh, my God” each time wind shook the walls of the garage or sent pieces of debris like roof tiles and soffits smashing into them. In hindsight, I’m amazed that nothing damaged my car.
Overall, my homeowners association and I were pretty lucky, although some of us had it worse than others. In the very row of detached garages where I had taken shelter, several stalls on the end were destroyed, including the ones right next to where my 92-year-old neighbor, who still drives and had just returned from filling his gas tank, had also taken shelter. After the rain had cleared, we helped our neighbor who owned the destroyed garages salvage as much of her belongings from them as she could.
Those were some interesting hours, days and weeks in Aug. of 2020 — interesting enough that I wrote some of it down on a little notepad. Some of it was pretty trivial: “Desperate for protein and limited in non-perishable options, I found out that Chick-fil-A sauce can really jazz up a packet of tuna,” I wrote one evening. (I must have been starving, because that now sounds revolting.) Some of the stuff I jotted down throughout each day so I could update out-of-town family later on social media: “(My brother) Rob has a tree branch through his ceiling and his garage is destroyed with his car inside.” He had just bought the house two months to the day earlier. The rebuilding of his garage is just shy of finally being complete.
Some of the things I wrote down were jarring: “Lost count of how many overturned semis I drove past on I-380,” I wrote the day after the storm following a trek down the interstate in search of gasoline. My search was in vain, but I did get to see how a local gas station in North Liberty was faring without electricity: “Kum & Go is operating cash-only by writing sales in a notebook and adding totals with a calculator,” I wrote.
I told myself at the time I was jotting down my notes that it was just because I had nothing better to do to pass the time, especially in the dark. “Read by candlelight. Pee by candlelight. Shower by candlelight. Journal by candlelight,” reads page 2 of the notepad. But I think I knew even then, in those days immediately following the most destructive storm Iowa has ever seen, that there would be certain things I would want look back on — fondly.
And there are indeed many things I want to remember: Scrounging up deli meats and sharing a sandwich supper with neighbors. Volunteering for a derecho recovery center to get food and supplies to people in need. Standing at my screen door and squealing to the whole neighborhood that power was restored. My parents barreling through my door with every rechargeable device they owned not 20 minutes later.
I also want to remember how happy we felt to see the convoys of utility trucks — and how happy they were to be a part of our recovery. Alliant Energy, on their corporate Facebook page, actually thanked Iowans for volunteering to do work crews’ laundry. That’s the reality of a place like Iowa: During an incredibly stressful event, in an already incredibly stressful year, while so many of us saw our homes and livelihoods lying around in tatters, we were all nice to each other. We fired up our generators, we picked up our chain saws, we got to work, and we helped each other out.
The derecho of 2020 has had a lasting impact on those whose homes and businesses were in its path. As our homes are repaired and rebuilt and the despair fades, we deserve to look back on everything we endured as a people — and appreciate it. I hope our community never endures another loss like the one we experienced two years ago this week. But as to the act of coming together, checking in on our families every day, and bonding with our neighbors? I hope I don’t forget that anytime soon. I wouldn’t even mind experiencing it again.
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