Staff Columnist

Derecho spawns destruction, government response spawns frustration

A tree fell onto an auto mechanic and home at the corner of Mount Vernon Road SE and 15th Street SE in Cedar Rapids afte
A tree fell onto an auto mechanic and home at the corner of Mount Vernon Road SE and 15th Street SE in Cedar Rapids after a powerful storm with straight-line winds moved through Iowa on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

For a few days this past week, it seemed like flattened corn was getting significantly more attention than Iowa’s flattened second-largest city.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds did visit Tama and Marion to check out storm damage. But the news of the day from her tour was crop damage, some 10 million acres flattened and shredded by the Monday derecho. The Washington Post and other national news outlets picked up on this trouble in the Corn Belt, visible even by satellite.

Big news, to be sure. Nearly half of Iowa’s farm acreage affected. But in dark, smashed and increasingly frustrated Cedar Rapids, it didn’t seem like the only big news.

On Wednesday, Sen. Joni Ernst went to Maxwell, a small town in Story County, to look at flat crops and damaged grain bins.

On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in Des Moines to tout the Trump ticket’s support from farmers and ranchers. He met with the governor and a group of farmers who told him of the derecho’s wrath. Pence tweeted a picture of himself looking at a picture of flat corn. He was “taken aback” by the scope of the damage, but didn’t bother to go see it in person.

In a speech, Pence got in some real zingers about newly minted Democratic vice presidential running mate Kamala Harris wanting Americans to eat less meat. They’re not going to let her “cut America’s meat.”

Meanwhile back where Cedar Rapidians are tossing spoiled meat into dumpsters, more than a few became perplexed at the lack of attention being given to what appeared to many of us to be the worst natural disaster, in terms of scope, that’s ever hit town. Gazette staffers Lyz Lenz and Alison Gowans took to twitter to question why the storm’s aftermath wasn’t a bigger national story. KCRG’s Beth Malicki also hit twitter to argue, correctly, that more national attention would lead to much-needed assistance.

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U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who lives in Cedar Rapids, seemed to read the room and community best. On Thursday at a city briefing she described neighbors in need of refrigeration for breast milk and insulin. She also talked of a resident who just finished chemotherapy, cutting himself during cleanup and needing antibiotics. Only one pharmacy was open.

Yes, this. More of this, please.

Speaking of assistance, locals also began wondering when the National Guard would arrive. This seems like a moment tailor made for a large, efficient operation with heavy equipment, big generators and the capacity to deliver relief supplies. After all, the Iowa National Guard just assisted in sending needed supplies to Beirut.

But Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart appeared to argue in a KCRG interview Wednesday that the city could handle it and the guard wasn’t needed. On Thursday he slipped into his default mode, defensiveness, to say he’d been misquoted and meant only the guard wasn’t needed for tree removal. He said the misquoting led to 300 emails! And by the way, his own house was damaged, too.

“I don’t have much of a roof,” Hart said.

Later in the day, it was announced that the guard is on its way.

On Friday the great wheels of government attention at last rolled into the beleaguered city. Guard engineers arrived. Ernst came Friday morning to hand out food. Reynolds rolled in, toured neighborhoods and held a news conference in Cedar Rapids at midday. We’re glad to see all of them, at long last.

“It is devastating to see the widespread damage,” Reynolds said, pledging to apply for a “major disaster declaration” from the federal government on Monday. One week after the storm.

This was a frustrating, uneven and hardly urgent initial response to a very bad, clearly devastating disaster. For those of us confronted with the storm and its ongoing aftermath, it’s mind-boggling that days passed without a meaningful state response.

I get it, the derecho’s destruction stretched across Iowa, so no matter where politicians went they’d miss something. But it was clear once the winds died down that the situation in Cedar Rapids was particularly dire, and that local officials facing the same blocked roads and dead cell service we all faced would be unable to handle it alone. I know there are processes and declarations that need to be followed, but the National Guard should have been rolling in on day one.

If government can’t act fast to help people in trouble, what good is it? Help can come in many forms, including showing people somebody actually cares about what’s happening.

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As for the flat corn, the initial attention to it shouldn’t be a surprise. During the ongoing pandemic, we’ve learned that concerns about 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. So naturally, when the latest disaster struck, corn losses took center stage.

The sweaty, dejected and increasingly desperate folks in Cedar Rapids had to wait for their close up. Let’s hope the belated attention now leads to some serious help.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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