Iowa’s last disaster, breathlessly covered by the media, was the caucuses. After that, everyone moved out. The dearth of coverage means we are struggling here, and no one knows.
The storm was called a derecho, a term for sustained straight-lined winds. As local TV news anchor Beth Malicki tweeted Wednesday, “This isn’t a few trees down and the inconvenience of power out. It’s like a tornado hit whole counties.”
Gusts of 112 mph were recorded in Linn County. As I drove through the town of Cedar Rapids on Monday, I saw billboards bent in half, whole buildings collapsed, trees smashed through roofs and windows. The scope and breadth of the disaster is still being calculated, but by some estimates, more than 10 million acres, or 43 percent, of the state’s soybean and corn crops have been damaged.
A quarter of a million Iowans are still without power. In Linn County, where I live, 79 percent of people are without power, still, three days after the disaster. Cell service is spotty, where it exists. The few gas stations and grocery stores with power only take cash. And good luck getting cash from your bank, which is most likely closed. Even if you have the money, lines snake around the gas stations, two hours long or more, and the grocery stores are chaos. A citywide curfew exists. You can see the Milky Way from the darkened downtown.
My friend Ben Kaplan, a local photographer and videographer, described the situation this way: “There is no trash pickup. There are one hundred thousand fridges of rotting food. There are raccoons. There is no escape from the heat, except to run out of town to look for basic supplies in an air-conditioned car. Downtown, bricks and glass litter the sidewalks. Plate glass windows shattered during the storm. Many businesses have been physically destroyed. All restaurants lost all of their perishables. Factories are closed. Offices are closed. The economy — the whole thing — is stopped.” All of the destruction is compounded by complications from the pandemic, which make cleanup, charging stations and distributing meals all the more difficult.
And yet, unless you were living here, you wouldn’t know.
Local newsrooms already gutted by years of downsizing and cutbacks, stretched thin by pandemic coverage, are scrambling, barely able to get out updates. Senior visual journalist Liz Martin’s car was hit by debris, and she had to walk the streets after the storm taking pictures. She uploaded them at the printing warehouse as power and Internet flickered on and off and her phone battery died. Local TV news station KCRG had journalists riding out the storm in their cars, unable to use their phones to call in updates. At my own newspaper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, we struggled without Internet and ran our printing warehouse on a generator. The business editor told me he was driving over with flash drives with stories on them from a nearby town, Iowa City, to plug them directly into the printer server.
The few news stories that have been picked up are wire stories; we wrote them. Meanwhile, the national and local media covered hurricane Isaias every day for a week. East Coast residents had time to prepare for Isaias; Iowa had little warning.
It’s bad here. Very bad. Bags of rotting food line the streets. City trucks can’t get through on roads blocked by debris and downed wires. Still, we did everything we could to put out a paper, even though many of us had holes in our roofs and power lines dangling in our backyards, and we were sitting in the dark. It’s no bungled caucus app, but the stakes are arguably much higher.
The executive editor of my newspaper, Zack Kucharski, said he normally likes it when the national media ignores Iowa, but this situation frustrates him: “The lack of national attention is concerning, especially because there seems to be a correlation between attention and recovery dollars,” he said. And yet our ability to advocate for ourselves was limited, he said, “because we’re still focused on being able to get out of our homes.”
So far, the only elected leader calling for a presidential disaster declaration is Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D), who tweeted: “We need more resources and WE NEED THEM NOW. The Governor needs to call for a Presidential Disaster Declaration and the President needs to grant it. Hundreds of thousands still without power, we need assistance in all forms. NOW.” She repeated this call at a news conference Thursday, pointing out the mothers who cannot freeze breast milk and cancer patients who cannot access their medicine.
Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Jodi Ernst have toured some disaster sites, focusing on crop damage, but have remained silent when it comes to demanding national help. Both have plans to come to Cedar Rapids and Linn County, four full days after the devastating storm. Even if they eventually take up calls for help, it will have come belatedly, leaving hundreds of thousands to sit in their homes without power, without food, struggling to access and coordinate help.
As I wrote this, sitting around a table in a warehouse, the only place in town where I can work with power and electricity, my co-workers and I heard a loud squeaking rattle.
“What’s that?” asked features editor Diana Nollen.
“It’s the zombie apocalypse,” replied Todd Dorman, our insight editor.
“Tell them to start moving trees,” I said. We laughed, and did all we could do, to try to survive: We got back to work.