Even though the power is back, they still need help.
“No one starved,” Fontenette said. But “we have a long way to go.”
Iowans have “endured the unimaginable,” Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Friday, as the state tries to recover from Monday’s derecho. The violent thunderstorm — which struck with the force of a Category 2 hurricane with little warning — lasted 14 hours with wind speeds that reached 140 miles an hour. It devastated scores of communities in the Hawkeye State, and Cedar Rapids, a city of more than 125,000 people, was among the hardest hit. Most homes and businesses sustained damage, trees and wires are down everywhere, roads are blocked, and hospitals are overrun.
The National Guard brought some relief to the stricken area as the week ended, and Reynolds announced at a news conference Friday that the state will apply Monday for a federal disaster declaration that would provide financial assistance to affected homeowners and cover repairs for critical infrastructure.
Affected Iowans say they feel as if they are living on an island or as if the derecho hurled them back into a previous century, with no electricity, spotty cellphone coverage and a lack of clarity about what the future holds.
“People didn’t know. We couldn’t communicate to the outside world,” said Zack Kucharski, executive editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, who described not being able to reach his parents, either physically or by phone, even as he tried to keep the newsroom running.
Stores are out of tarps to cover roofs, and more storms are forecast this weekend. Schools are destroyed and will be starting late. People are driving to other states to find generators.
There are fears that this disaster could lead to more. Improper generator use has caused multiple cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. Residents have been clearing debris with their neighbors and picking up food supplies maskless, raising the specter of an explosion of novel coronavirus cases in weeks to come.
But few are able to think that far ahead.
“We’re at the disbelief stage,” said former mayor Ron Corbett, who was elected shortly after the 2008 floods that wreaked havoc in the downtown area. “People are saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ Those statements are true.”
But unlike the floods, which were front-page news across the country, this far more widespread disaster has left residents feeling forgotten, even as they grapple with what may lie ahead.
“It’s still early,” Corbett said, describing neighbors doggedly helping neighbors and hoping that more help will materialize.
Cedar Rapids has a diversified economy, including engineering and avionics, Corbett said, but a large part of it processes crops from the state’s sprawling corn and soybean fields, which were buzz-cut by the storm. The impact will be felt for months and years to come.
Ron Heck who farms 4,000 acres 150 miles away in Perry — half corn and half soybeans, — said Friday that he doesn’t yet know how to assess the damage and that, for now, everyone he knows is still busy picking up the pieces.
“The situation is chaotic,” Heck said. The destruction is worse than anything he or his 92-year-old mother have seen. But his insurance adjuster has not yet visited, and it’s hard to figure out what, if anything, can be retrieved from his own fields.
Some of his corn has snapped; some is bent over and could possibly be harvested — but there is nowhere to store the grain. The empty grain bins were blown over, and the ones that survived are full of last year’s corn. There’s not enough time to replace them before the harvest begins in mid-September.
“It’s very hard to get an overall picture,” said Heck, who spent Friday doing office work at a place with power. Like most other farmers, he has crop insurance, but it only covers a percentage of the farm’s average yield. He knows he will suffer substantial losses.
“This event will drive some people out of business,” Heck said. “And it will strain everyone financially for years to come.”
Sofia Mehaffey, who runs the Meals on Wheels program in central Cedar Rapids, is also taking things one day at a time and worrying about the future. A top priority, she said, is to get out and check on the 1,200 people the group serves across five counties and take them nonperishable meals.
“The well check is a big part of what we do,” Mehaffey said, “Many people may not have seen another face.”
In response to the coronavirus, she has already revamped the entire food preparation and delivery system to provide frozen meals that could be left on doorsteps, rather than interacting closely with clients.
The storm and lingering power outages led to the loss of 4,000 prepared frozen meals and a ton of fresh produce, milk and meat, all in a year when finances were already tight because of the pandemic.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Mehaffey said.
On Friday, her team began making frozen meals — meatballs, hamburgers, sweet potato fries and corn — but it’s not clear when they will be delivered.
“You can’t take people meals they can’t refrigerate or freeze,” Mehaffey said, and many of her staffers are managing damage to their own homes and cars.
“We are trying to maintain good morale,” she said. “But it’s really difficult from day-to-day.”
Ben Kaplan, 33, a photographer, lives in the New Bohemia neighborhood in Cedar Rapids, which was devastated by the floods of 2008 and 2016. While his home sustained minor damage, he considers himself lucky, but when he says that, he laughs.
“That’s what all Iowans are saying. Iowans with trees through their roofs and water in their basements are considering themselves lucky because their homes weren’t destroyed. That’s the bar. That’s how low the bar is.”
Kaplan, who has been helping clear debris in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood, said many people have three to four trees down in their yards, which will cost thousands of dollars to remove.
“After lockdown and losing their jobs from the pandemic, no one has that kind of money,” he said.
The cleanup looks long and complicated to Kaplan, with damage to so much infrastructure and an economy already reeling from the pandemic. He is sick, he said, of hearing about Iowans’ resilience and stoicism.
“We cannot Iowa nice our way out of this,” Kaplan said. “We need buckets of help. We’re already worn down from the pandemic. We are on month six of resilience and I’m tired of it. I want some help.”
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.