Staff Columnist

The disaster we don't see

A man sits outside a storm-damaged apartment building at Cedar Terrace in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, the res
A man sits outside a storm-damaged apartment building at Cedar Terrace in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, the result of the Aug. 10 derecho. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

‘Where the f*** is everyone?” yelled Calvin Ross, 42, a construction worker who lives in Westdale Court apartments. “Where is the help?”

It was Sunday, six full days since a derecho, with wind speeds of more than 120 mph, blew through Cedar Rapids. Ross and his partner, Nicole Seber, consider themselves lucky compared to their neighbors. After all, they still have a roof, they still have walls. But they’ve been living for days in a one-room apartment with no power in the heat of August with nowhere else to go.

In front of their apartment is a tree, ripped to shreds from the storm. Thick heavy branches dangle precariously. As we talk Seber tells the kids not to go near the tree.

The storm is over, but the disaster is only getting worse.

When the windstorm hit Iowa Aug. 10, initial news stories reported on the widespread crop damage and images of flattened cornfields and grain bins crumpled like discarded beer cans dominated the news.

When Vice President Mike Pence visited the state Thursday, he looked only at pictures of crop damage before flying out of the state. But the tragedy of the disaster wasn’t the corn, nor was it the loss of trees. The tragedy was the voices of the unheard. The people who went for days without help.

On Friday, five days after the storm, I got a call on my cellphone. I had put the number on a story I wrote about ways people could donate to help Iowans in need. I used that number because, with internet down, I knew my office phone wouldn’t work. It was a woman. She has diabetes and hadn’t had a meal in days. She couldn’t leave her home. She wanted to know how she could get a hot meal.

She wasn’t the only one. Three other people called my cellphone that day. All of them were elderly, they were stuck at home, no internet, no cellphones. They’re suffering is invisible to their city.

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It took reporting by Iowa Public Radio to bring attention and resources to the people in Terrace Court apartments, many of whom don’t speak English as their first language.

“Disaster response needs to be focused and coordinated,” said Kirstin Manges, Ph.D., RN and national clinician scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Manges recently moved to Philadelphia from Iowa and, when the disaster hit, she spent time following up with patients in the disaster area.

“There still is no central place for people to get information,” she said. “The community is relying largely on crowdsourcing by the general public through social media to do the leg work of coordinating the disaster response.” And while, as Manges points out, it’s great to see neighbors helping neighbors, this is how misinformation is spread. Rumors about robberies and racist stories about resource-hoarding are rampant. And the people being missed are the ones without a voice.

“Crops, you can see,” Manges pointed out. “Trees, you can see, but those without a voice, those are the ones who are being failed.”

In a phone call with me, City Council member Dale Todd, sounded tired when he said: “It’s clear the safety net we thought we had is not good enough. We have failed the immigrants, the invalids and the old. And we did not respond as quickly and as efficiently as possible. We need to do better for our city.”

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-651-8148

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