IOWA DERECHO 2020

The final 500: Last Cedar Rapids residents regaining power after derecho

Heat adds to challenging circumstances for families, elderly

Ashley Turner's back porch roof in Cedar Rapids caved in when a tree fell on her house during the Aug. 10 derecho. Turne
Ashley Turner’s back porch roof in Cedar Rapids caved in when a tree fell on her house during the Aug. 10 derecho. Turner family was without power for 15 days and their home, pictured Wednesday, sustained significant damage. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — At first, the power outage from the Aug. 10 derecho didn’t seem so bad to Ashley Turner, a Cedar Rapids mother of two.

“It’s cute making campfires the first couple nights,” she said.

Her youngest daughter — “I called her MacGyver all week” — used the fire to pop popcorn and made a popcorn stand to serve it from a piece of concrete. Turner liked seeing her daughter “enjoy her childhood” like she did a few decades earlier.

But that satisfaction lasted only so long under the stress of both an enduring pandemic and, it turned out for her, an enduring power outage.

“The next few nights you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, we’re in the dark,’” Turner said. “It’s dark out here.”

That realization wasn’t unique to the Turner household. The family living just south of Mount Vernon Road was among the almost 500 in Linn County to go at least two weeks without electricity following the derecho.

As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, 56 customers still were without power 16 days after the derecho tore through Iowa — a remarkable accomplishment for utilities crews working round-the-clock to rebuild the demolished electrical infrastructure and restore power to tens of thousands of customers.

The long outage came with myriad obstacles as homeowners like Turner also dealt with repairing storm damage and trying to cope with the sweltering August heat.

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“It’s been really miserable,” Kathryn Coulter, 70, said while sitting in her car to charge her phone. “I just want to tear my hair out.”

Cedar Rapids saw temperatures Wednesday reach into the 90s with high humidity. On Thursday, the heat index is expected to hit 100 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities.

“It went from uncomfortable to almost scary,” Turner said.

Coulter, who lives in northeast Cedar Rapids, has asthma and heart conditions, making the oppressive heat especially dangerous.

“I try to sit outside in the shade as much as I can but that’s not very comfortable, either,” Coulter said. “How do you sleep in this? I grew up on a farm and we didn’t have air conditioning, but at least we had a fan on.”

Turner, seeing her two small dogs look “very, very uncomfortable,” did everything she could to keep them cool. When a friend arrived earlier this week with a generator, they got the fans on for the dogs.

The idea of “just going to a shelter” isn’t so simple, Turner said. She lives with two teenage daughters, her husband, two dogs and her disabled mother.

“It’s not easy to just uproot your life and your family,” she said. “We’re just supposed to pack up and say, ‘Here we are?’”

Keeping any perishable food cold quickly became a challenge, even with coolers.

“That’s very frustrating — not being able to prepare food for your family,” Turner said. “Or having to worry about how long have these eggs been in here. Have they been in the cooler for four hours or has it been six?”

Initially, many people like Turner and Coulter understood the position Alliant Energy was in.

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“At first you’re really patient because we are Iowa strong and Cedar Rapids strong,” Turner said. “We are really thankful for our Alliant workers.”

Similarly, Coulter said she doesn’t want “to criticize Alliant because they’ve done such an amazing job.”

That positive thinking, though, was put to the test. As others regained power — including the rest of Turner’s neighborhood about a week earlier — “things really do start to get discouraging.”

“I literally had to report another outage,” Turner said. “That right there was really scary. Did they forget about us?”

Coulter, too, didn’t have power after everyone around her had regained theirs.

Turner and Coulter eventually learned the problem was with their equipment — not Alliant’s. After an electrician repaired Turner’s electrical equipment, she was expecting it to take a few hours for Alliant to restore power to her.

Instead, it took four more days.

“That one was really hard to take,” she said. “I didn’t understand why we needed to be put back on the bottom of the list when we were able to have power since last Friday.”

The many challenges added stress for the whole family, which also had a tree on its house. Turner’s older daughter couldn’t contact her teachers. Turner noticed the stress even getting to “MacGyver,” too.

“It got really overwhelming,” Turner said. “As parents, you try the best you can to keep your kids grounded, but at the same time, you don’t really know what to say because I don’t live in a place where hurricanes are supposed to happen.”

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Turner and Coulter now have their power restored. Coulter’s came back at about 11:15 a.m. Wednesday. Turner’s came back at about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday — a nice birthday present for her oldest daughter, who turned 16.

When power finally did come back, Turner “wanted to do cartwheels up and down the street.”

“But my body is not built for that,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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