Hurricane-force winds gusting up to 112 mph in the rare derecho storm flattened 37 million acres of crops and damaged many homes and businesses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Critics of Reynolds, an ally of President Trump, have charged she did not call for the National Guard immediately after the hurricane-like event on Aug. 10, canceled a planned tour of damage in the epicenter of Cedar Rapids the next day, and waited nearly a week to formally ask for nearly $4 billion in federal disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for thousands of businesses, farms and residents who lost their livelihoods.
“The state and federal aid we needed immediately after the storm on Monday was delayed for days by a misunderstanding of this disaster and plain ignorance about the reality on the ground in communities across eastern Iowa,” said U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids. She has been in the streets of her town with a manual saw for several days, helping her neighbors cut up downed trees.
“I live here. I saw it firsthand,” she said. “We need FEMA, we need additional support from the National Guard, and we need to amplify the stories of what’s happening on the ground here to spark more action from our governor and the administration.”
Reynolds has pushed back against such criticism, saying she moved to deploy the National Guard to affected neighborhoods on Thursday, when she was asked by Cedar Rapids officials, as is protocol.
Cedar Rapids officials say they began asking for help right away.
She said the state had submitted the request for federal help, which Trump signed on Monday morning.
Reynolds said in a news conference Monday that the damage was so extensive and wide-ranging that officials didn’t have a true sense of the scale early on.
“Every day we continue to see more and more,” she said.
White House officials said Monday that Trump will be heading to Iowa on Tuesday to discuss the storm damage with the governor. The president also will meet with Iowans affected by the severe weather, a spokesman said.
“Just approved (and fast) the FULL Emergency Declaration for the Great State of Iowa,” the president tweeted.
Vice President Pence visited the state for a campaign event with farmers on Thursday, saying he was “taken aback to hear the magnitude of this storm and its impact.”
In Cedar Rapids, blocks of apartment complexes were decimated, with roofs and walls torn off in the storm and insulation, water bottles, pieces of siding, chairs, socks, and piles of drywall scattered across lawns.
Hot, exhausted residents sat in lawn chairs and tents and asked where the government help was.
Pamela Elliott, 48, and her partner, David Frantz, 41, said they sat outside in the heat for four days after the storm ripped the roof off their apartment, waiting for aid. Police kept telling them aid workers were on their way, but no one came.
“We need help,” said Elliott, an insurance company claims processor. “There’s so much destruction, but the response is moving really slow. I figured it would be a lot quicker.”
She and Frantz finally made their way to the main Red Cross shelter in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in downtown Cedar Rapids, where, even though the beds are six feet apart to promote social distancing, it was still crowded.
“We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. I’m, like, traumatized,” Elliott said. “I know it’s been a week today, and it doesn’t even seem like it’s a week. It feels like it just happened yesterday.”
More than 1,000 homes in the Cedar Rapids area have been declared uninhabitable, raising the specter that hundreds of families could be without a place to stay at a time when the state remains in the grip of the pandemic, reaching an all-time high of 832 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, according to the state health department. Reynolds was reluctant to impose wide-ranging virus restrictions earlier in the pandemic and has pushed back on the idea of a statewide mask mandate.
“This is a crisis within a crisis,” said Stacey Walker, a Democrat who serves on the Board of Supervisors for Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids. “We are seeing an estimate of billions of dollars of homes and businesses while Iowa has a governor who — in the view of many scientists and doctors — is not doing all she can do to curb this pandemic. You add all this together, and we are going to be climbing out of this devastation for years.”
“This is Iowa’s Katrina,” he continued. “Literally Iowa was hit with a hurricane-style meteorological event. It seems crazy to say that, but it’s true.”
The pandemic has complicated the storm crisis response. Many of those left homeless are reluctant to go to traditional shelters for fear of exposing themselves to the virus and have been camping in tents or staying in damaged homes.
Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, said that along with the risk of infection being spread through temporary shelters, thousands of college students at the state’s three large public universities — Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa — are headed back to the state.
“It’s a double whammy,” he said. “We could be at a really dangerous point if this starts spreading exponentially with the students back and along with a large homeless population.”
Brad Hart, a Republican who serves as the nonpartisan mayor of Cedar Rapids, defended Reynolds’s response to the crisis, saying widespread power outages and knocked-down cell towers made it difficult to assess how bad the damage was in the first few days.
“Nobody knew how big it was at the state level,” he said. Hart may have confused matters himself by telling a local television station Wednesday that Cedar Rapids did not need the National Guard’s help. He later said he had been misunderstood.
Michael Cappannari, a spokesman for FEMA Region VII, said that completing a damage assessment for the broad area of Iowa, as typically happens before a request is made, would have been a time-consuming task even without the pandemic, which has strained resources. FEMA, he said, had provided a liaison officer to work with the state on the assessment, but in the end the request was made before it was finished — a process that had been complicated by the coronavirus.
On Sunday, Reynolds formally requested an expedited Presidential Major Disaster Declaration for Iowa, including funding for 27 counties for assistance with housing, personal property replacement, medical expenses and legal services, and additional money for debris removal and replacement of public infrastructure in 16 counties.
“Expedited major disaster declarations are few and far between,” said former FEMA administrator William “Brock” Long, now executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting. When they do happen, they often happen quickly, he said, sometimes within hours of a major disaster hitting.
Unlike a hurricane — which can prompt a pre-disaster emergency declaration, allowing emergency services, for example, to be readied — the derecho hit vast swaths of Iowa with almost no warning.
In a news release, the governor’s office said that work to develop the aid request began immediately following the storms but that many local agencies have not yet been able to complete damage estimates.
Over the weekend, Genevieve Adams, 48, a Nordstrom fulfillment center worker, was still trying to clear the debris from her modest home in Cedar Rapids. Bleachers from the middle school next door had blown several yards into her home in the Cedar Hills neighborhood, rendering it unlivable. She and her 15-year-old son were staying with her sister — for now.
She wept as she described subsisting on a cup of coffee and one meal a day since the storm.
“A week later and we don’t even have food,” Adams said through tears. “It’s a struggle to make it on our own. They could at least have a truck or something out delivering meals.”
Critics also said state officials were quicker to respond in the last significant weather-related crisis in Cedar Rapids, devastating floods in 2008 that washed away several blocks of the city, according to Austin Frerick, a Cedar Rapids native and agriculture and antitrust researcher at Yale University. He was at his parents’ home in Iowa when the storm hit and spent much of the past week clearing debris from his hometown streets.
Calvin Ross, 42, a construction day laborer, agreed. He lived in Cedar Rapids during the 2008 flood and remembers aid coming a lot faster.
“It’s still been a week and we don’t have any help out here,” Ross said.
He and his partner, Nicole Seber, were still staying in their apartment, keeping cool by taking showers and eating whatever food people brought by. They’re still paying rent on their apartment and say they have nowhere else to go.
“We are just gonna make it through today,” Seber said.
“Someone has to help,” Ross said. “Surely someone.”
Anne Gearan, Toluse Olorunnipa, Lyz Lenz and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.