Guest Columnist

When disaster stalks more than corn

Damaged corn is seen near Mount Vernon, Iowa on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Damaged corn is seen near Mount Vernon, Iowa on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

More than a week after the derecho hit the state on August 10, thousands of Iowans are still waiting for their power to return. The noise of chain saws cutting up trees and generators powering refrigerators can be heard all over Cedar Rapids. Volunteers are everywhere. Those who don’t run chain saws are giving away food. Utility crews and city crews are working long shifts.

Neighbors and other volunteers are helping as well in my community of Mount Vernon, where homeowners who lost trees and roofs can use some help. My friends who run two vegetable farms with downed hoop houses near town also can use help to pay for the structures and the carrots and broccoli plants that got smashed. Many storage bins on farms and at elevators were leveled and they may not be fully covered by insurance.

A presidential visit, like that Tuesday in Cedar Rapids, might be nice, but more important is how public policy and action augments the boots on the ground and helping hands of volunteers. Gov. Kim Reynolds has requested nearly $4 billion in federal relief, but published reports indicate that 94 percent of that amount is sought for farmers who already had a large share of their losses insured.

There’s no question farm damage was enormous. The derecho blasted hurricane-grade wind gusts through an estimated 3.57 million acres of corn and 2.5 million acres of soybeans. The crop damage is estimated at $3.77 billion in 36 counties.

Remember, most farmers will benefit from crop insurance that is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Iowa State University Extension’s “Ag Decision Maker” recently noted that about 90 percent of corn and soybean acres in the state have “multiple peril crop insurance” covering various shares of their average yield.

So, we can expect farms will be protected, as they always are in Iowa. The question is how residential homeowners, small Main Street businesses and low-income Iowans — those least able to protect themselves from disaster or recover from it — will fare.

In comparison to the $3.8 billion for farm recovery, the Governor is requesting assistance to cover “$82.73 million in damage to at least 8,273 homes that were destroyed or severely damaged,” the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted. It remains to be seen how far that will go, when it is so clear urban areas hit by the unprecedented severity of this storm need attention every bit as much as the usual suspects.

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As Gazette columnist Todd Dorman noted, the attention to flattened corn “shouldn’t be a surprise,” especially as the COVID-19 pandemic showed “the lives and health of meatpacking workers are no match for the push to make sure the pork gets to the supermarket.”

“Billions of dollars are at stake for powerful, politically important agricultural interests,” Dorman wrote. “So naturally, when the latest disaster struck, corn losses took center stage.”

Iowa is more than corn and soybeans and hogs and eggs. The ultimate determination of the adequacy of the Governor’s request is how well it meets the needs of those who live in the estimated 275,000 residences in the storm’s path. For those who work or own businesses that aren’t farms but were heavily damaged, will the Governor’s request turn out to be both adequate and fair?

David Osterberg is a senior researcher at Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization formed recently by the merger of two nonpartisan, Iowa-based groups, the Child and Family Policy Center and the Iowa Policy Project, the latter of which he co-founded. He is a former state legislator from Mount Vernon, where he still resides.

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