Residents, volunteers and out-of-towners step up to help after derecho storm stuns Cedar Rapids

One retiree drove to Iowa with chainsaws to help

Tim Wellendorf cuts a tree trunk into smaller pieces Sunday along Towne House Drive NE in Cedar Rapids. Wellendorf typic
Tim Wellendorf cuts a tree trunk into smaller pieces Sunday along Towne House Drive NE in Cedar Rapids. Wellendorf typically volunteers in hurricane zones after storms, cutting trees into pieces sized for crews to clear efficiently. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Almost a week after hurricane-force winds devastated Cedar Rapids, the cleanup efforts continued as residents undertook the hard work of clearing away debris and trees toppled onto homes and yards.

City crews in trucks were scattered throughout parts of the city where broken branches and cutup trees were piled along streets, sometimes reaching higher than cars parked nearby. Local not-for-profits have helped organize myriad volunteers to help hand out food and clear yards.

“We’ve seen a huge influence (Saturday) and (Friday) of people reaching out and wanting to volunteer,” said Angelica Vannatta, United Way of East Central Iowa’s senior manager of volunteer engagement.

In the midst of cleanup, neighbors and other community members have made an effort to help one another. And at least one individual traveled far to help Cedar Rapids residents.

Tim Wellendorf arrived in the Kennedy High School neighborhood early Saturday morning with a truck loaded with equipment, including two chain saws, at the home of 90-year-old Dorothy Carman.

Carman’s house along Towne House Drive NE saw minimal damage, but the backyard was full of fallen trees and a number of broken branches. The group that included Wellendorf working to help residents along Towne House Drive NE managed to clear out the yard in a few hours

Carman, who has lived in her home along Towne House Drive NE since 1969, said she was “overwhelmed with appreciation.”


“I can’t thank them enough,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been bothering them, how much I thank them.”

This isn’t the first time Wellendorf has helped residents tackle the aftermath of natural disasters. Since 2017, he has traveled the country with his chain saws to help residents clear away downed trees.

Wellendorf first started after Hurricane Irma reached Texas in 2017. For the most part, his work has brought him to the coasts following the paths of hurricanes.

After Hurricane Michael slammed into Florida in 2018, for example, Wellendorf spent more than 200 days in Panama City.

“I have the resources, I have the time and people need the help,” he said. “Way more people are hurt after a disaster than during disaster, because they’re inexperienced. They buy equipment they’ve never done anything with before.”

Wellendorf, who grew up in Audubon in Western Iowa, attended Drake University before living in Kansas for 25 years. He owned and operated an orthopedic manufacturing company called Wellendorf Enterprises. He sold the company about three and a half years ago.

He now divides his time between living in Texas and Florida.

Helping victims of natural disasters was a meaningful way to spend his retirement, he said.

“It’s one of the most satisfying things to be able to provide some hope to people,” he said.

“One of the things I see when I go into a disaster area is that people are just overwhelmed. The job is so big, they have no idea where to start. They ask, ‘How do I even deal with this?’ I say, ‘Well, we’ll start here. We’ll do it one tree at a time,’ and eventually it’ll get done.”


According to Kayla Paulson, United Way’s Senior coordinator of 55+ Initiative and Service Enterprise, several not-for-profits that focus on natural disaster relief and recovery also have made their way to the state this week.

These groups expect to be in the Cedar Rapids area for at least a few months to help with debris cleanup and to help repair residents’ homes, among other work. Paulson said these groups offer necessary services to a city that had been overwhelmed by the Aug. 10 storm.

“Our community was not ready for a whole communitywide impact,” she said.

These disaster relief groups are different from the companies making their way into Cedar Rapids this week to offer tree removal, roofing repairs and other services for a cost.

John Marsh, 73, paid about $1,500 to a crew based in Houston, Texas, on Saturday to remove a damaged pin oak tree that rose nearly 70 feet over his home. Marsh said he had planted the tree in front of his house — which had originally belonged to his father — in 1973 or 1974.

Marsh was sad to lose the tree, but he was more optimistic this past weekend. Down the block, city crews were working on a downed power pole, the power lines hovering just a few feet off the street.

“I don’t feel as bad as I did the day it happened,” he said. “It gets better because you see that the world is not going to end and maybe we’ll get power someday.”

Wellendorf said he finds his way to communities through mutual connections — friends of friends or of distant relatives. In this case, Wellendorf’s cousin who still lives in Iowa eventually led him to Rick Blackwell of Cedar Rapids, who lives a few houses down from Carman.

Blackwell, a 65-year-old retired school administrator, gathered players and parents with CR Surge Volleyball Club, which he coaches, to help Saturday.


He said he believes it’s important that community members step up for each other rather than wait for federal or state aid.

“It’s our responsibility to take care of one another,” Blackwell said.

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