IOWA DERECHO 2020

Heading into day 10 without power after the derecho storm hit Cedar Rapids

Residents in the Mount Vernon Road neighborhood come together sharing generators and hosting group meals

Josh Whartman stands in his front yard as his father, Paul Whartman, works on rebuilding his son's front porch on the so
Josh Whartman stands in his front yard as his father, Paul Whartman, works on rebuilding his son's front porch on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Josh Whartman's home is without power. He has begun spray painting a daily tally to mark how long it has been since the derecho struck. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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For Dennis Svoboda, 72, his home is the place he’s lived for most of his life in Cedar Rapids. But this is the longest he’s ever been without electricity.

“Once in the winter it went off for three days, but never this long,” he said Wednesday, sitting on his front stoop.

Svoboda inherited the home from his parents. The house sits on a side street off Mount Vernon Road in a neighborhood that has yet to have power back heading into day 10 since the derecho storm ravaged Linn County Aug. 10.

Svoboda property didn’t sustain a lot of damage from the storm. He lost a tree here and there, his neighbor’s tree fell on his fence and into his garden, but most of that is now cleaned up. And just as many others have said, he feels very lucky.

And while every day now seems like one long day for the retired man who lives alone, his neighborhood — as many others have done — has come together to help each other.

“I have a cellphone that ran out of juice a while ago. I’ve not had any telecommunications to speak of,” said Svoboda, who doesn’t have a generator. “But right now, the neighbors are charging it for me, so that’ll be taken care of.”

Svoboda typically uses an electric CPAP machine to help him sleep, and he hasn’t been able to use that since the electricity went out. But that’s the second item on his list of things keeping him awake at night.

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“That hasn’t affected my sleep as much as when it’s awful hot,” he said. “It’s mostly the heat.”

Svoboda cleaned out his fridge last Friday and has been buying ice and food to store in his cooler.

“Mostly I have pop, beer and lunch meat since Hy-Vee is open,” he said. “I’ve been mostly getting junk food — popcorn, chips, anything you don’t have to refrigerate.”

As for getting power back, he and his neighbors are uncertain when that will be.

Full restoration

More than 21,000 Alliant Energy customers in Linn County were still without power heading into Wednesday night.

In Cedar Rapids, 19,536 Alliant customers were without power Wednesday evening as were 1,427 in Marion, according to Iowa Utilities Board data.

Figures provided by the board on Wednesday evening estimated full restoration for Cedar Rapids for this Friday.

Alliant spokesman Mike Wagner confirmed that as the current estimate for “customers that can accept energy.” Those with extra property damage may have to wait longer.

Collectively, energy crews have replaced 3,000 power poles across the state and 1,200 miles of wire has been replaced. That’s 10 months of work done in 10 days.

“We will not rest until all of our customers have power to them,” Joel Schmidt, Alliant vice president of business development, said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

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In an evening statement, Aliant said 90 percent of homes and businesses in Marion and Robins had power.

Brittany Hansen, who is from San Antonio, Texas, admitted she wasn’t a big fan of Cedar Rapids when she moved to the city. But seeing how her community has pulled together since the storm has changed her opinion.

“We’ve been thankful,” she said.

Hansen, who also lives in the Mount Vernon Road neighborhood, still is without power. A tree in her yard split in half during the storm and fell on her house, gouging holes in the roof. She was in the basement with her son and dog at the time.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life,” she said. “My son was shaking in my arms and I thought the house was going to cave in on us.”

But she said she’s trying to remain positive.

On Wednesday, she was visited by chaplains from a Billy Graham Rapid Response team from North Carolina and Michigan who prayed with her in her driveway.

“I’m trying not to show my kids that emotional side,” she said. “At lunch time, we go around the table and list things we’re grateful for.”

Hansen said though they don’t own a generator, neighbors offered to hook up her refrigerator.

“Everyone is trying to be positive and friendly,” she said. “We’ve all been doing things for neighbors. We had a big meal for a neighbor’s birthday yesterday.”

And without electricity her children have had less screen time, she said.

“The kids have been reading more books, learning how to cook more, we’ve done more training with our corgi,” Hansen said.

‘In the dark’

Another resident of the Mount Vernon Road neighborhood, Dave Bunce, who served in the Navy during Vietnam, said he’s “been through blows” before.

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“I went through a typhoon in a boat,” he said. “I thought I’d seen everything, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Bunce, who is retired and whose home also is without power, said it’s hard to know what’s going on day to day.

“We’re all in the dark around here,” he said. “I have a generator hooked up to my fridge at this time, but sometimes at night, I’ll hook it up to my TV to get the news.”

Bunce’s house fared well after the storm but had tree damage. That was taken care of from a tree service from Minnesota.

“I thought 2015, when I got separated (from the Navy), was a bad year. I thought 2018 when I got divorced was a bad year,” Bunce said. “But this tops it all — between this and the corona thing.”

But as with many in the neighborhood, he said all the neighbors have been working together for the past week to help each other.

“Tonight, we’re going to have a neighborhood cookout in the only yard that’s got shade left,” he said. “I’ll bring canned goods.”

Misty Newlon has been staying with her sister Angel Jeffrey.

Newlon is employed at Kraft Heinz and hasn’t been able to work because that building is without power as well, she said.

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“I lost everything in the ’08 flood and it’s hard,” Newlon said through tears. “My work has no power. What more can we do?”

Newlon, who rents her home, said her landlord didn’t help with the tree damage or the weather head attachment being broken and has been trying to get Newlon to pay for it.

“People can’t afford the insurance and stuff to cover most things. We work hard for most things, and now look where we are,” she said. “Why should we pay when we’ve torn the tree down and we’ve paid for the electric?”

The sisters have one generator they are using for some lights and fans. Their groceries already are gone.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Newlon said. “You’ve just got to keep smiling.”

Blocks away, Warren and Kim Lammers had a pirate flag flying on their downed tree in the front yard.

Their grandson, Levi, who lives with them, had put it there.

“My biggest concern is the kids,” Kim Lammers said. “It’s trauma . (Levi) got his Nerf guns and armored up and said he was going to protect the house. He’s 8.

“He was scared. He’s doing better, but this is all a lot. Kids don’t know how to process.”

Two weeks before the storm, the Lammers’ new, large freezer chest had arrived, so with the help of their generator, they had neighbors bring food to keep cool.

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“We also had a little corn patch in the back that got flattened,” Lammers pointed out. “But we got some (corn), went around the neighborhood and passed it out. We cooked it on our camp stove in a pot.”

And just next door, Josh Whartman and his father, Paul, who drove in from Nebraska, were busy rebuilding his front porch that had collapsed during the storm.

“I also lost shingles and had holes in the roof,” Josh said. “Water came in. It was scary.”

Immediately after the storm, Josh worked on clearing branches with some neighbor’s help and patching his roof. Since then, he’s been rebuilding his porch.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Paul Whartman said. “This is like a war zone.”

On his curb sat a piece of torn-off siding, and on it Josh had spray-painted, “Day 10.”

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

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