IOWA DERECHO 2020

Storm evokes trauma of 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids

2020 'a pretty miserable year'

CEDAR RAPIDS — As he surveyed damage around Pierson’s Flower Shop and Greenhouse in the northwest Time Check neighborhood, Al Pierson said devastation from Monday’s derecho evokes memories of the 2008 and 2016 floods.

“Compared to the ’08 flood, it’s a lot easier but still traumatic,” Pierson said Wednesday. “2020 is going to go down as a pretty miserable year.”

Across town and the Corridor, Pierson is not alone in that sentiment.

City either ‘under water or under trees’

Bob Williams has lived on the northwest side for 28 years. Wednesday, he was helping remove a tree that landed on the front porch and a bedroom of Mike Jacobus’ roof. After the floods, William said he is “about ready for anything to happen anymore.”

There was something very Cedar Rapids-esque about the winds that downed trees, stripped roofs and left most in the dark without cellphone and internet connections, Bruce Koerber said as he cut branches to pile by the street at Sutherland Square on Cottage Grove Avenue SE.

“Cedar Rapids doesn’t do anything little,” he said. “A 1,000-year flood and now a 1,000-year windstorm. It seems like we’re under water or under trees.”

A diversion from pandemic and politics

As he waited for an insurance adjuster, Kevin Bowlin looked for a silver lining.

“What a way to take our minds off COVID-19 — and politics,” he said outside his house, surrounded by downed trees, on Syvan Lane SE. “We’re pretty diverse politically along this street.”

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His across-the-street neighbor, Karoline Rozeboom, called Bowlin “awesome” for checking up on neighbors in the immediate aftermath of the storm Monday.

“To have a neighbor knock on the door to see if we were all right meant a lot,” she said, starting to choke up.

“It’s the biggest bonding thing,” Bowlin said with a shrug. “Everybody knows everybody now.”

For Bowlin, the storm that essentially was the strength of a category 2 hurricane brought irony along with the wind.

In February, he moved from Panama City, Fla., to Cedar Rapids “because I got tired of hurricanes.”

‘Lifetime to grow’ but a ‘second a lose’

On Fox Meadow Lane SE off East Post Road, chainsaws provided the soundtrack as homeowners, extended families and friends cleaned up mountains of debris from mature oaks and maples.

Dan Diehm was trying to focus on the cleanup, not what was lost.

“Half the beauty of living here was those big, mature trees,” he said. “It takes a lifetime to grow a tree and a second to lose them.”

The trees that towered over his home were not the only things Diehm lost. He owns Cedar River Garden Center in Palo, which he described as “pretty much total destruction.”

Next door, Suzi Wolle mourned the loss of trees, but thought maybe a few could be saved.

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A power line feeding the neighborhood was down “but that happens every year,” said Ella Wolle, who was home from the University of Wisconsin.

In addition to needing electricity, the Wolles need the city to begin removing the tree debris.

“We don’t have anywhere to put the trees from the backyard until this gets hauled away,” Suzi Wolle said.

‘Not like any other storm I’ve ever seen’

At Cottage Grove Place on First Avenue and Cottage Grove Avenue SE, Bob Blazek sat on the lawn watching as employees of the retirement community raked debris from the lawn and picked up stray shingles and branches.

“It was not like any other storm I’ve ever seen,” said Blazek, 84.

Executive Director Mark Bailey estimates Cottage Grove Place sustained nearly $1 million in damage. Half that is the roof. With rain in the forecast, crews were putting tarps on the roof.

Some windows were broken and rain leaked into a few rooms.

“No one was hurt,” Bailey said.

Two generators helped keep operations, including the kitchen and health center, operating. Bailey praised employees who were working even though their homes had been damaged. Cottage Grove Place was trying to accommodate employees whose homes were uninhabitable.

The residents, for the most part, took the storm in stride.

“It’s really brought some of them out and given them something to talk about,” Bailey said. “They telling stories. ‘Remember that storm in ...’”

‘It’s all for one and one for all’

Alldan Langston was getting help removing a fallen tree from his backyard by a neighbor on Eighth Street NW.

Langston, who has lived on Eighth Street since 2015, said he has watched the neighborhood come together during other disasters like the flood of 2016 when neighbors placed sandbags around homes.

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After the storm Monday, a lot of residents on the block, including Langston, helped clear the road of trees, he said.

“It’s all for one and one for all,” Langston said, a trait that makes the his northwest neighborhood “unique.”

A common refrain: ‘Where do we start’

Kathie Ham’s initial reaction was similar to so many others when she and her husband, Gary, had their first look at the storm damage.

“Where do we start?” Ham said when they saw the huge maple split open and half of it crashing into her backyard on Thiher Drive in Hiawatha. “I’ve lived through a tornado in 1968 in Oelwein but nothing compares to this.”

Hiawatha may have had some of the most powerful winds of the derecho, reportedly at 112 mph. The Hams had no idea of that as it was happening — but they knew it was nothing they had experienced in their 27 years in living there.

The felled tree in the backyard engulfed most of the yard, but the real damage to their home was by a tree in the front that fell onto the roof, along with power line that now hangs barely above the patio area.

“It will probably be a total roof replacement,” Gary Ham said, shaking his head. “We were watching the storm roll in. The front tree went down on the roof. There was no real damage inside, but there is structure damage. And it took off my chimney top. Lifted it straight off. Look, it’s all bent up and landed back here” in backyard.

The Hams, with the help of their grandson, started the cleanup Tuesday. Gary Ham said he was able to get a new chain for his chainsaw so he can cut up the large maple. He had a hip replacement in January, so cleanup would have been difficult without his grandson, he said.

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Kathie Ham said they are trying to be patient but her biggest frustration is not being to get in contact with their insurance agent and other family because cell service and internet is out. Their daughter lives in Cedar Rapids, so she was able to come by and check on them, but they have no way to contact other relatives.

Emptying the freezer before it’s too late

In another Hiawatha neighborhood, on Millstead Drive, David Kegel and his son, Michael, have managed to clean up debris from two fallen maple trees in the front and one huge tree in the backyard. It missed falling on a small pine, but hit a neighbor’s fence.

One of the trees in the front was the other neighbor’s, which toppled over and crashed into the driveway basketball goal, shattering the backboard.

“Nothing hit the house,” David Kegel said. “I found a chainsaw, which isn’t easy, but had to take about five detours driving to (the store) and had to meander my way around through back roads to get there.”

The Kegels and their neighbors just got through recovering from hail damage in April. Fortunately, they already have been in touch with their insurance agent on this storm.

The next challenge is food while waiting for their electric to return.

“We had our big blowout last night — emptied our freezer before it went bad,” David Kegel said. “We had pizzas, steaks and fish.”

‘Like the house was going to come down’

“It’s just unreal,” said Matthew VanMaanen as he scooped up an armload of chopped-up branches from the 100-year-old oak tree that used to stand in his front yard and tossed them onto a pile at the curb.

“One of the most beautiful things about this neighborhood were all the big old trees, and now so many of them are gone.”

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A resident of 33rd Street NE for 16 years, Matthew said he and his husband were in the basement when the storm hit.

“It was crazy,” he said. “It felt like the house was going to come down.”

But in the end, it was the massive oak that once shaded the front yard that was uprooted and blown over.

“I loved that tree,” he said. “That tree was one of the reasons I bought this house. It was just so amazing.”

‘The church is more than a building’

The force of the storm may not be more evident than the destruction at the River of Life Church, 3801 Blairs Ferry Road NE, which sits on the Cedar Rapids side of the Hiawatha border.

Marcus Bratsch, associate pastor, said the sanctuary took the biggest hit, which is completely gone except for steel beams and rafters, and the pulpit. The whole west side of the church is exposed. There is a mangled part of the building and roofing that was blown across the street into the Unity Church parking lot.

Some sound equipment was also left dangling from the sanctuary ceiling and there is part of a drum set lying near the top of the rubble.

“I was in the coffee shop, which is in the center of the building, with some others when the storm hit,” Bratsch said. “We moved to the other side.”

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Only the garden for Feed Iowa First food pantry remained untouched on the west side. There are several rows of collard greens.

“We are thankful it wasn’t on a Sunday and everyone is safe,” Bratsch said. “Our mission hasn’t change. The church is more than a building. We just have to process through all the emotions. God still is good.”

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