'I lost everything': Cedar Rapids tenants scramble to find shelter after Iowa derecho

Storm hit southwest side apartment complexes hard

Jeremy Kepler passes a pile of debris as he rolls a newly patched tire to a vehicle in the parking lot at Westdale Court
Jeremy Kepler passes a pile of debris as he rolls a newly patched tire to a vehicle in the parking lot at Westdale Court Apartments, 2155 Westdale Drive SW, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Kepler has been patching tires for residents at the complex after they get flat tires from roofing nails and other debris in the parking lot. He borrowed a magnetic sweeper and plans to walk the parking lot with it. People are still cleaning up and without power after the Aug. 10 derecho storm. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Randy Pettit returned to his second-story Westdale Court apartment to see if there was anything left he could salvage.

The Monday sun shined down on his last-ditch search effort, the sky now serving as the ceiling of his condemned building. Bits of insulation stuck to his cabinets, refrigerator and floor. Pieces sprinkled the grass outside, as if hurricane-force winds got into a pillow fight with the walls Aug. 10 when a derecho whipped through Iowa.

His TV, brown suede couch, most of his clothing — lost. Some Iowa Hawkeye cups, empty beer cans and a Tostitos bag remained.

“It’s a total disaster,” said Pettit, 52. “I lost everything.”

» HOW TO HELP: Donate to these local organizations helping with storm recovery

His unit is one of about 250 homes that Fire Chief Greg Smith said were destroyed in the storm; about another 700 sustained significant damage. Firefighters placarded buildings as they assessed storm damage, warning occupants that it’s unsafe to enter.

The devastating storm left some Cedar Rapids residents scrambling to find another place to live, forcing them to stay temporarily with friends and family, book a hotel room, set up tents outside their complexes or seek shelter with the help of volunteer organizations. The storm hit apartment complexes especially hard on the city’s southwest side.

Pettit shuffled around from the Holiday Inn Express to the Microtel in Marion with his girlfriend, Krista Manos, before their landlord set them up in an unoccupied Westdale unit.


Locking the door behind him as he left, he said there’s nothing left to do but “pick up the pieces and move on.”

Off 16th Avenue SW, Alexius Miner Hughes, 24, is strapped for cash. The Sinclair gas station where she works as a manager burned as the derecho tore through and she said she hasn’t been paid since the storm.

Her green Ford Explorer slouched to the right with a flat rear tire in the Shamrock Apartments parking lot, damaged in the destructive winds. A moldy odor permeates her apartment now, eight days after the storm, but at least the power came back on.

And she said just when things began to look up, the apartment manager delivered a blow: Miner Hughes and about half of the other residents have until Thursday morning to leave their homes.

“ … I’m scared. I don’t want to go to a shelter,” she said. ”I have to come out of my comfort, my home, to go …”

Her voice wavered and she paused to wipe tears from her eyes: “I worked so hard, you know? To just get to where I am.”

Lisa Gavin, the managing attorney with Iowa Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to low-income people, said the most common issue her organization has seen after the storm is landlord-tenant disputes — mostly with people whose rentals have been deemed uninhabitable.

Residents with renters’ insurance typically have policies that cover the cash value of damaged personal items. Some policies also cover the cost of temporary housing. But those without renters’ insurance are “kind of on their own,” Gavin said.


“This isn’t the landlord’s fault, and the landlord’s insurance won’t cover people,” she said, but residents can still turn to the Iowa Department of Human Services for food replacement and apply for an Iowa Individual Assistance Program grant.

Miner Hughes said some members of her family know of the devastation in Cedar Rapids, but there’s no one extending a helping hand.

She’s tried without success to reach Red Cross, and as the clock ticks toward Thursday, she doesn’t know where to go next.

“I’m stuck,” she said, looking at the three children playing in the grass outside her complex. “I’m lost for words.”

The Arrowridge and Shamrock Apartments residents are banding together to check in on their neighbors, organizing donations of food, diapers and other supplies in the complex’s laundry room. They’ve grilled food to serve tacos, spiral ham and grilled cheese to keep everybody fed.

John Thompson, the manager there, has the unlucky task of informing people that they need to leave. He said he estimates residents in about half the complex’s 488 units will have to relocate, at least temporarily, and he’s been working with volunteer organizations to help coordinate places for people to potentially stay.

Stepping outside of his office to walk toward Johnson Avenue SW, he quipped, “I promise if they start throwing stuff, I will do everything in my power to make sure you don’t get hit.” Residents had yelled at him dozens of times already Tuesday, he said.

Blue tarps rested on several of the units of what he now calls “ground zero.” In the immediate aftermath, he said, everyone came together to knock on doors and make sure no one was hurt. And since then, donations and volunteers have poured in.


Staff from Servpro, the fire and water restoration company working on the Arrowridge and Shamrock Apartments, peppered him with questions. Residents stopped him to ask about what to do about their storm-damaged apartment. Volunteers balanced communicating with residents and updating him on their efforts to secure resources for them.

He’s able to keep up with it all because he knows his community, and they know him.

“They know I’m not going to put frosting on it and make it a cupcake,” he said of his brash, upfront management style.

On the walk back to his office, Thompson passed a resident sitting on a staircase who thanked him for his help.

“It’ll all be good,” Thompson hollered back. “Someday — not Sunday, either.”

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