IOWA DERECHO 2020

Tama County faces long road 'back to normal' after derecho

Weeks after derecho, federal relief starts to flow

Workers with the Iowa Department of Transportation on Wednesday haul away tree limbs cut down after the Aug. 10 derecho
Workers with the Iowa Department of Transportation on Wednesday haul away tree limbs cut down after the Aug. 10 derecho in Vining. The small community was hit hard by the derecho, and residents lugged tree debris to a big pile in town, which the Iowa DOT then transferred to the landfill. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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VINING — After last month’s derecho blew through, this small town faced a big problem.

“The town looked like a war zone,” recalled Steve Rouse, mayor of the community of 47 people east of Tama. “We don’t have a budget, we’re such a small town. … We had folks come in and give us a quote of $400,000 for clean up that you have to pay up front. We don’t have that kind of money to begin with.”

Many homes in town received at least some damage. One trailer home was destroyed. Perhaps half the trees in town were lost.

Rouse’s father, Red Rouse, who also serves on the Vining City Council, got on the phone.

He reached out to state Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, for help. Soon, the Iowa Department of Transportation got involved in helping move a large pile of debris that was forming in the middle of town to the county landfill — free of charge.

“My dad really took the bull by the horns and started making phone calls,” Mayor Rouse said. “Edler made it happen for us and got the DOT out here. There were 100 loads they hauled out.”

“It was relentless,” Red Rouse said of the Aug. 10 storm. “When it was done, I took a ride around town and it was devastating. We had roads blocked, trees, posts everywhere. Half of our street signs were gone.”

Steve Rouse said the town was without power for nine days. But everyone started dragging their debris to the pile in the center of town.

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“It’s an elderly town,” the mayor said. “The majority of people here are 50-plus and everybody did a good job helping neighbors clean up. It’s pretty amazing what a small town can do with no budget and elbow grease.”

It has been over a month since the hurricane-force derecho ripped through Iowa, tearing a path from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids.

In the midst of the storm’s path sits Tama County. ranked only in the middle of Iowa’s county populations though it lies between the state’s two largest cities. Every community in the county felt the derecho’s wrath. Buildings and grain silos were destroyed. Tree canopies will take decades — or longer — to recover.

Mindy Benson, emergency management coordinator for Tama County, said she may never have official numbers for how many buildings in the county were affected.

“For just Tama County, we sustained a heavy amount of damage to all our county infrastructure in the Tama/Toledo area,” Benson said. “The chimney fell off the courthouse, putting holes in the roof. A secondary road shop and main garage was destroyed. Half of the garage blew off while mechanics were inside of it.”

The entirety of the county was among the thousands of customers without power following the storm. But like many communities in Eastern Iowa, the first priority was making sure residents were safe.

“We had to get access to the streets,” Benson said. “Making sure no one is touching electrical lines, making sure those streets got cleared. We got those pushed off the road so we could get emergency response vehicles around.”

On Sept. 1 — three weeks after the storm hit — Tama County was approved for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s individual assistance program, enabling property owners and renters to seek aid for some things not covered by insurance.

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On Sept. 11 — a month after the storm — the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, located within Tama County, got its own Presidential Disaster Declaration from President Donald Trump.

Meskwaki Nation Executive Director Lawrence SpottedBird said FEMA aid is being coordinated with the state disaster declaration for Tama County residents.

SpottedBird said that about 200 of the 350 homes on the settlement were damaged after the storm, which temporarily displaced some 600 people. Meskwaki Nation was able to get the displaced residents into a hotel until they were able to return home.

The most pressing cleanup has been completed, he said, and the focus has shifted to repairing damage.

“The emergency part is done,” he said. “We’re forming an emergency plan that was being developed before the derecho. But we weren’t quite there. We want to have a plan in place, planning for the next disaster. We want to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Meskwaki Nation has received help from other tribes around the country as well as various groups and individuals.

“We received a lot of support from different nonprofits. They had equipment we could not get. There was nothing available at the time,” SpottedBird said. “We’re getting calls from different individuals wanting to help. We got a financial donation from another tribe in California.”

With the emergency over, Meskwaki Nation — and the rest of Tama County — faces a long road ahead to recover.

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“Contractors are really hard to come by in the area to get things fixed,” said Benson, the emergency management coordinator. “We still see tarps on roofs, plywood on windows, tree debris on curbs. It’s a slow process and city workers are doing the rounds, but it takes a lot to get it all done. The tree pile at the landfill is growing exponentially by the day.”

In Tama, Mayor Doug Ray said the city was in its last week of picking up tree debris.

“We have a lot of houses that still have roof damage,” Ray said. “It’s come along good. A lot of people stepped up.”

Ray, who is in his first mayoral term after eight years on the Tama City Council, said he hopes to never see another derecho like this one.

“I’ve been in Tama for 55 years and I’ve never seen nothing like it and I hope I never do,” he said.

Following the storm, Tama was without power in some areas for up to two weeks. Ray said he spent the first couple of days afterward in a loader moving trees off the roads.

When Tama County was added to the disaster proclamation and approved for FEMA aid, Ray said that took some of the burden off for the community. The cities of Tama and Toledo covered any landfill fees for residents, too, as they got rid of debris.

“That saved a lot for people,” he said. “But we’re headed in the right direction and it will all come back to normal someday, between this and COVID.”

Katherine Ollendieck, director of Tama County Economic Development, said there’s not a fully accurate count of businesses affected by the derecho because the damage was so extreme.

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“It’s going to take us awhile just to get cleaned up,” she said. “Tama and Toledo were greatly affected. That’s where most of our businesses are concentrated because that’s where most of the population is.

“I worry about towns like Vining, Elberon and Chelsea,” she added. “Their budgets are on the absolute brink right now. There’s money to pay the bills for the city every year, but the extra expenses can be overwhelming.”

Ollendieck said the recovery for those living in rural areas on farms could take years.

“Some farmers are looking at two-three years to get their new grain bins built,” she said. “The outside world looks at us and thinks, ‘Oh they cleaned up trees and everything’s back up.’ The effects of the derecho are long-term.”

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

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