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Gone with the wind: More uncertainty for rural Iowa

A massive derecho rampaged through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana on August 10 with devastating results. Winds were estimated to have reached 130 mph in places, leaving 1.9 million without power. The derecho ripped a path of destruction 50 to 60 miles wide and 770 miles long. Ten to fourteen million acres of agricultural production were flattened in Iowa, and over one-third of the state sustained significant damage from this powerful storm. A week later, people were still struggling to clean up, and power was not yet restored to over 68,000 households and businesses.

No time to prepare

This warm weather phenomenon, known as a progressive derecho, occurs once every one to two years in the Midwest. This storm was an extreme example, causing sufficient wind damage to merit state disaster declarations in twenty-seven Iowa counties. For comparison, the most recent significant derecho in Iowa affected seven counties in July of 2011 and another significant storm, of similar size to the 2020 derecho, occurred in 1998.   

Storm damage
Photo: Rob Merritt | Cedar Rapids

These windstorms can be as strong as category 1 or 2 hurricanes, but accurate comparisons end there. Derechos last for hours, rather than days, and the lead time to warn a community in its path can be measured in minutes. The night prior to the storm, the Storm Prediction Center only showed a ‘marginal risk’ of severe weather and most residents were not actively looking for alerts. Warnings in eastern Iowa appeared 30 to 40 minutes prior to the arrival of the storm, and many were caught wholly unprepared for what was coming.

The winds didn’t stop

People in the midwestern United States are not unfamiliar with difficult weather conditions, but most residents were surprised by the duration and strength of the winds. “It was a really scary storm. I’ve been in a lot of high winds before, but these lasted for a long time!” said Carmen Black, a farmer in Johnson County and organizer for PAN.   

Once the winds subsided, shocked Iowans were trying to understand what had happened. Cell service was non-existent or spotty for much of the state. Iowa’s second largest city, Cedar Rapids, was without 911 services and saw damage to more than 80% of their homes and businesses. Every town in the derecho’s path looked like it had just experienced a tornado and much of the state’s rural infrastructure was crippled. One farmer reported driving sixty miles from north to south and said that “you could walk on flattened corn fields the entire way.”

Closed road
Photo: Audrey Staples

Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, declared twenty-seven counties disaster areas and submitted an application for federal relief on August 17. Unfortunately, President Trump signed off on only a small fraction of the $4 billion request, covering only government facilities and debris removal ($45 million for sixteen counties). None of the funds requested for damage to homes, businesses and farms have been approved at the time of this writing. 

Farms with difficult choices

Row crop farmers are already having conversations about what they will do with their storm-flattened fields. Some are considering grazing, but what if recently applied pesticides require a setback period before consumption by livestock? A smaller subset of farmers are considering ways they can try to seed cover crops into their fields, but the plant debris may make that impossible. Most of these farmers will simply hope the insurance will cover enough so they can begin preparations for next year’s crops.

Meanwhile, those with smaller, diversified farms are also picking up the pieces and making the best of things. For many of these farms, there are no affordable crop insurance options. They nurse damaged crops and replant what they can, all while cleaning up shredded high tunnels and salvaging orchard trees. And, like the row crop farmers, they must make difficult decisions about what comes next.

Picking up the pieces

Last Thursday was a long and exhausting day as my partner Tammy and I drove South to help family and friends after Monday’s derecho storm. I saw more crushed grain bins and destroyed out-buildings in one drive than I’ve seen during all my years living in Iowa. I was humbled by the gratitude that was shown to us for doing simple things that, in our minds, were inadequate. We delivered bags of ice, fuel, prepared food, boxes of tissues, and a flashlight. We lent a hand with clean-up for as long as we were able. And then we drove back to our farm so we could do our evening chores, sobered by the knowledge that it wasn’t enough.

Recovery is still very much on our minds right now. It is difficult to think about much else when we realize our neighbors are struggling. If you are struggling, we hope you find the strength to ask for the help you need. If you were fortunate, as we were, then we hope you will find strength to provide that help.

Resources for derecho relief

Lead Photo: Kip Ladage | Bremer County Emergency Management Agency

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