IOWA DERECHO 2020

'On our own' after the derecho, Wellington Heights residents band together to feed neighbors

Bowen Gryp, 17, helps shuttle bottled drinks across 15th Street SE to the Wellington Heights neighborhood Association re
Bowen Gryp, 17, helps shuttle bottled drinks across 15th Street SE to the Wellington Heights neighborhood Association resource center in Cedar Rapids while volunteering with other members of the North Liberty First United Methodist Church on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. The resource center has expanded their hours and services in the wake of the Aug. 10 storm, offering food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and serving as a central location for donated hot meals. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Jess Karma expects her neighborhood will be last to be restored.

She and her neighbors in Cedar Rapids’ Wellington Heights neighborhood lost electricity nearly two weeks ago, when a derecho storm with the force of a hurricane ravaged much of Iowa. They tied trees to their trucks and dragged them out of the road. They watched the food in their fridges rot.

At 392 15th St. SE, Jess Karma and other volunteers at the Wellington Heights Resource Center have invited anyone to take any resources they need since Saturday. Hundreds visit every day. No one has heard from any elected official, Jess’ wife, Tommi Karma, said.

“It’s super upsetting, but I don’t think I’m surprised,” Jess Karma said Wednesday, noting the bad — and, in her view, inaccurate — reputation of the neighborhood. “We’re going to be last on the list. It’s really sad — it’s really sad to know we’re just out on our own.”

The Wellington Heights Resource Center, a blue single-family house managed by the neighborhood association, has tried to fill the void, welcoming anyone who arrives to take what non-perishable food, cleaning supplies and soap they have.

Elizabeth Snyder filled a wagon with supplies for her family Wednesday morning. She was praying her power would come back soon — to stay cool, she’s been sucking on cubes of ice.

When Gloria Gibson, who lives around the corner from the center, filled bags with food and supplies Wednesday, it had been an hour since her power came back. At home, she said children were lining up to take a hot shower.

“We are in survival mode,” Gibson said. “ … All of the different places around here have made it a little easier, have put a little comfort on us.”

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On Monday, the city opened five resource sites, where residents can pick up supplies and apply for food assistance and other benefits. One, in a parking lot near St. Paul’s Methodist Church, is a few blocks from the Wellington Heights Resource Center.

The city’s other resource sites are at the Ladd Library, the Northwest Recreation Center, Taylor Elementary and Metro High School.

“We’re not one of the city’s official distribution sites, but we were here first,” Wellington Heights neighborhood Association President Bob Grafton said. “We’re in the hub of Wellington Heights right here, and our mission has always been to help our residents in any way we can. This is a big, huge need.”

The center, which opened in 1992, sees high foot and bicycle traffic. If it had better funding or a sponsor, Grafton said, he would spread out the 501(c) (3) nonprofit’s efforts.

“We’re a core neighborhood right here,” he said. “This is by default. We were doing (a food pantry) during Covid, too.”

Churches and businesses, including the gay bar Belle’s Basix, have ferried over supplies and hot meals all week.

A youth group from First United Methodist Church of North Liberty volunteered Wednesday. One of their chaperones, Lucy Herschberger, said many in the community just 20 miles south hadn’t immediately realized the needs in Cedar Rapids.

“The best way to be the most effective is to partner with somebody who is already there,” Herschberger said. “If we can be out in the neighborhood and have relationships in the neighborhood, we can make a difference.”

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Corenne Liabo, who handed off donations from First Congregational Church in Cedar Rapids to Jess Karma, agreed.

“They are amazing, and I wish that they could be funded,” Liabo said. “She is so in touch with the neighborhood. She knows immediately when a need arises, and she’s right there for them.”

Throughout the day, residents walked a wheelbarrow of food to immobile neighbors. Candace Lynch, principal of the nearby elementary school Johnson STEAM Academy, stopped by to discuss organizing teachers to help deploy resources to homes. Jimaine Cooper, who has advocated against youth gun violence in Wellington Heights, loaded a minivan full of supplies to take to Hawthorne Hills Apartments on the city’s southwest side.

“I’m going to do this as long as it takes,” Cooper said. “I look at these families and it’s like, this could have happened to mine.”

Power, at least, was returning — though some 16,000 households were still without by Thursday morning. At Jess and Tommi Karma’s house Tuesday night, their seven-year-old ran into the backyard, lifted her arms in celebration and shouted that the lights were on.

The next morning, Jess drove to the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program’s food pantry to bring whatever she could fit in her car back to the center.

Within hours, it was nearly gone.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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