Derecho storms in Iowa force families to navigate ‘dual-disasters’

Updated: Sep 17

On Monday, August 10, 2020, sirens went off across the Midwest, warning residents of a ‘severe thunderstorm’. Though the storm that followed was not just a thunderstorm, but a weather pattern most people have never heard of called a ‘derecho’ storm. A derecho is a long-lived straight-line windstorm that is part of a line of powerful thunderstorms. Derechos can produce winds that are equivalent or exceed hurricane force winds.

Midwesterners are generally used to thunderstorms, and even the occasional tornado, but the recent derecho storms seemed to have popped up without warning, in communities unequipped to deal with such natural disasters, demolishing nearly everything in its path.


The derecho storms traveled hundreds of miles on August 10th, developing in northern Nebraska and southeast South Dakota during the morning hours and quickly grew as they moved into Iowa. The storms reached severe status in western Iowa and damaging 100+ mile an hours winds developed as they reached the Des Moines area. The line of storms tapped into a very unstable atmosphere over Eastern Iowa and began producing a much wider swath of destructive winds as it passed through Cedar Rapids, Iowa around 12:30 p.m.

About 600,000 people in Iowa and nearly 2 million in the Midwest lost power at the height of the storm. The high winds damaged more than 10 million acres of crops in the state - equivalent to about 43% of the total crops in Iowa.

An Iowan corn field damaged by the high winds (Photo via: Daniel Acker)


More than a week later, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of the hardest hit cities in last week’s storm "is like a battlefield" according to locals. Thousands of residents remained without electricity for more than 10 days, families who lost their homes are in staying in hotels or living in shelters, and the local community has assumed the majority of the responsibility to band together to collect food and supplies for those who've lost everything.

More than 800 buildings in Cedar Rapids suffered partial collapse of the roof, walls, ceiling or floors, and more than 20 school buildings in the city sustained damage as well.

Photo: A building in Cedar Rapids is destroyed by the storm (source unknown)


Thousands of families suffered damage to their homes, many unable to return to their properties as they were deemed unlivable. Parents with children living at home were forced to either flee the city and their damaged property, some driving hours away or even out of state to bring their family to safety, or those who remained in the area were faced with unimaginable circumstances in trying to care for children and infants without even the most basic necessities like running water or any way to store non-perishable food.

Jaime, a Mom of 5, living in Cedar Rapids describes her intense experience navigating the derecho storms, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a mother of young children:

It was a normal Monday. I was at home with my children. It was a typical beautiful morning. We were playing and getting ready to have lunch. My husband was getting ready for work, he came downstairs and said, "Alright babe, I'm leaving. The weather app says we are getting a severe storm this afternoon, just so you know." He said goodbye to the kids, goodbye to me and left for work.

Not even 10 minutes later the sirens sounded. I explained to the kids that the sirens were a warning for a thunderstorm, but it was okay. I didnt want them to panic but I did have them come play in the kitchen to be near the entrance to the basement. We only have the two windows in that room and they aren't like my large windows through the rest of the house so it seemed like the best place to keep an eye on them while the storm rolled in.

Living in the Midwest, we are very used to having severe thunderstorms and even the occasional tornado warnings, but there was something different that day.

I remember looking outside, it had been seconds since the sirens went off, and the sky turned dark gray and I saw a tree. A whole entire tree, roots and all, flew past my house. The kitchen counters and contents rattled as the wind continued to gush outside.

The derecho storm rolling into Bryant, Iowa (Photo via@smithweathergal)


I said, “Okay babies, downstairs now, quickly and calmly. They are 11, 7, 6, 5, and 7 months old. As we were walking down the stairs my side door flew open. The wind blew so hard and the children started screaming. We heard the loudest crack and saw our neighbors tree fall onto their garage and into their yard. I handed the baby to my 11 year old and told them keep going down to the basement. The yard was filling with trees and I needed to get the door shut. My daughters were screaming for their Daddy and I remember thinking, “Oh God, please let him have made it to work. Please be safe”.


All the thumping and slamming. Trees and debris hitting the house, slamming against the kitchen windows and the side door. The deadbolt and knob lock wouldn't hold and the door swung back open. The wind blew harder and harder. I ran down and wrapped my arms around them. Told them “We're okay, we're gonna be okay.”

I called my husband and I said, “Please tell me you’re at work”. He said he was but that the car was wrapped in sheet metal which had detached from their roof and the power was out. He then said "Oh my God. The awning is coming down." He said "Honey the roof is collapsing I have to go. I love you." We could hear the sound of his awning falling and panels, and he hung up and I began to sob. I didnt know if that was my final goodbye to my husband.

I quickly called my mother because she lives in Center Junction and I knew these winds were headed her way. My parents are disabled, and I worried about their ability to stay safe in this type of storm. I remember saying “Mom it's bad. Please get inside, and stay safe. Don't go out and look at it. Stay Inside." I was crying and the kids were crying. My Mom heard how very scared we were. I said, "I love you Mommy. Please tell Dad I love him. Please DO NOT go outside, get safe!" And I let her go, praying they would be alright.

I then called my best friend of 16 years. She is the sole caregiver to the most beautiful disabled lady I know. I needed to know they were safe. She explained that she had gone to her Mom's trailer to wake her up and let her know the sirens were going off and that the second she got back to her trailer the first gust hit. Since they didn’t have a basement, she put her nephew who she was watching at the time and Lindy (who is immobile) under the dining room table to cover them and protect them from any debris. While I was on the phone with her I was trying to calm her, and my children, when she was trying to calm Lindy and her nephew. He is also 6 and was screaming "I don't want to die KK! I want my Mommy." When we hung up, I wondered if we would ever get to speak again.

It felt like it was never going to end. The wind just kept coming. I encouraged my kids to try and sing to the baby, anything to distract them from the terrifying sound of the wind crushing everything around us outside. I'm not sure how long it lasted or when it stopped. But at one point, it seemed quieter and I got up and told the kids to not move. I walked up the stairs and it was still dark and a little windy and raining but the view from the windows was gone with trees everywhere. On all sides of my house. In my yard, and all of my neighbors’ yards. I stepped onto the porch and immediately smelled the gas smell in the air. I brought the kids up and after they cried again I calmed them and told them to play in the living room. The power was out in the entire neighborhood and the phone lines (including cellphones) were not working. Everything was eerily quiet.


I went outside with the intent of clearing the road to the best of my ability so first responders could get through, if necessary. I remember grabbing branches bigger than me and hauling them from the street to the curb. My neighbors across the street came out and started helping me.

Photo via NY Times

Their neighbors came out and explained that they couldn’t reach anyone about the gas leak. We didn't know where it is coming from. The whole neighborhood could smell it and it smelled like gas for the rest of the day. My 11 year old daughter came out and started helping haul branches and trees and yard bins, and playground pieces and siding out of the street. There were downed power lines everywhere so we had to be extremely careful. I sent her back in to check on the others. I walked down our street to check on a few families, especially those who were disabled or extra vulnerable. There was not a single person not outside already cleaning or helping neighbors.

When I walked back down towards home, I saw the best sight. My husband walking out of our house. I ran down and just fell into his arms. At this point it was nearly 4pm. I just cried. We took a deep breath and got back to work. It was a balance of clearing yards and sidewalks and taking care of the babies. This went on for two days. No electricity, meaning the food in the refrigerator was on the verge of spoiling and the freezer right behind it. We grilled every piece of prepped meat I had in there. 17 meals, in one day, which fed my family and 13 others in the neighborhood.

That day was hot. The sun was just blazing down on us. Because of the gas leak, hot humid temperatures and lack of electricity (meaning no air conditioning and no fans), I really couldn't keep the babies inside any longer than necessary, it was just way too warm. It felt like a smog, we couldn't get air in or out. We put sunblock on them and kept them in the shade. It didnt matter though, as they have very sensitive pale skin. All five of my children became badly sunburned. Especially my youngest, who is jut 7 months old suffered the most. I felt terrible, he refused to eat, couldn't sleep, had heat rash, and an unbearable sunburn. His face swelled up and he was covered in blisters.

My husband and I assessed where we stood financially. Due to the lack of electricity throughout the entire city (and wider area), no one was accepting credit or debit cards, only cash, but ATMs were also not functioning. We emptied our wallets and had $11 left on us and no way to access more funds quickly. It was clear that our (older) children needed to stay elsewhere until we figured out a plan. My sister and her fiance just got power back on so they took the kids. Best decision for them, hardest for me.

We went to my husband's store to assess the damage. He is the store manager at Family Dollar on 32nd and Oakland and it is a total loss inside. The ceiling has collapsed and everything is moldy. We have no answers. He has talked with every single one of his employees making sure they know if they need us we are right here and that he was going to get answers for them. He spent a week trying to find out what his district manager and those in upper management wanted them to do. Whether or not his employees would be paid or get to use PTO (paid time off), or should they file for unemployment? They kept saying they would get back to him, they would ask… They finally came out with a statement a few days later. There will be no pay or any type of compensation for the employees of the store. They have yet to confirm if the store will be repaired and reopened or if they will just close it and cut their losses. We had to tell his employees yesterday. It is so heartbreaking. These people need money to provide for their families. To pay rent, to buy food, to live. We don't have a paycheck coming either and we don't know when we will… we are now working on finding a way to get us through the months to come, because this was our only income.

Photo: Linemen restoring power in Iowa (source unknown)


Our power was finally restored on Thursday, August 20, leaving us without electricity for nearly 2 weeks. We didnt have renter’s insurance and we havent heard from our landlord. We cleared the trees on our own and have to take responsibility for all repairs.

Besides our worries about our home and my husband’s job, leaving me wondering how I will even feed them once the lights come back on, I also don’t know what life will look like for my children the coming months.

When will they start school? We had already decided on virtual learning because of COVID-19, but the staff are no longer returning because of damage. When they do, will we even have internet again? How far behind are the children in their education now?

Do the kids know it's out of my control? I want them to have normalcy and comfort and I feel like I'm failing in all areas. Will this never-ending nightmare leech onto something else? When will we be okay?

I have never felt so emotionally overwhelmed and at a loss. Having to leave my children in the care of others so I can try to somehow make our home livable again, my babies cry on the phone that they want to come home to me, but I don’t know when that will be possible. The Mom-guilt, the heart wrenching sadness is almost unbearable, but we made it, we are alive.

I try to focus on the positives. There’s always someone who is worse off, and I want to pay it forward and help my community too. We went through our house and started donating clothes, books, toys to families who lost their homes. We drove batteries to one woman who needed them, and diapers to another. A friend dropped off toilet paper and a meal for us. Another woman drove by asking if we needed anything. The number one phrase in Cedar Rapids right now is, "Are you okay?" Followed by, "Do you need anything?"

Photos via: Jaime Wilson


The local community has been amazing, it really is just the Iowan way to help each other out. A gentleman bought my husband and I breakfast one morning, just because. Another man bought all the ice and drinks and food for 30 people in a Kwik star here in town. We waited 2 1/2 hours in line to get gas and I bought a pack of waters from the gas station while my husband pumped and handed them out in the line. There were men helping push cars that ran out of gas in the long line. I could go on and on with examples of how much kindness is happening here daily. (Photo via: Jaime Wilson)


No one thinks twice when someone needs help, they just make it happen. There are dozens of people who are saying tell me where to go, and I will go. It really is a beautiful thing. I sang a song to my baby yesterday that made me think of Iowans, ‘Rescue’ by Lauren Daigle. The lyrics are "I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night, it's true. I will rescue you. "

Jaime, Mom of 5 – Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA

Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, and the Cedar Rapids Mayor, Bradley Hart, have faced criticism about the slow response in organizing state and federal relief efforts following the devastation caused by the derecho storm. President Trump visited Cedar Rapids (airport) on Tuesday, August 18th and has since approved emergency federal funding to support relief efforts in Iowa.


Volunteers at the site of the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page, 5001 First Avenue NE in northeast Cedar Rapids (Photos via: The Gazette & NY Times)


While desperate residents pleaded with local and state officials to send help, it was the local community who acted most quickly, stepping up immediately to take care of their own. The Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page, set up and run by Cedar Rapids resident, Raymond Siddell, who was frustrated with the slow relief response following the storm, has raised more than $100,000, served thousands of meals, and set up an extensively well-stocked resource center with supplies and support for those in need. Members of the group post everything from requests for advice on tree removal and electrical problems, to asking for or offering support and supplies in hard hit, and especially low-income areas, or vulnerable members of the community, and also offering moral support virtually or spreading ‘feel-good’ stories of thousands of line-men arriving to help restore power, creative ways to re-use the fallen trees, and good deeds being done around the city.


A beloved local restaurant owner, Willie Fairley, of Willie Ray’s Q Shack on Cedar Rapids’ Northeast side, started giving out free meals to those impacted by the derecho immediately on Monday, August 10th. He has fed thousands of residents over the past 2 weeks, receiving immense support and praise from Iowans and enough donations to continue providing food for the community on a daily basis throughout this crisis. (Photo via: CNN)

The reality of living in an area facing ‘dual-disasters’ leaves many Iowans wondering, ‘What’s next 2020?!’ but watching this local support system thrive with a clear motto of helping others first, during an already unprecedented and fairly tense time, is truly inspiring. The strength of this community shines brightly through the debris and destruction and gives most residents hope for the future. “We are strong, but we are tired.” Jaime, Mom of 5 says, as they gear up for another day of clearing branches and getting their home ready to welcome their children back. “Life has to continue, we are still parents, our children need food and education, we have to keep going.”


Photos via: Erin Pedersen, Paige Pesko, Jaime Murray


SUPPORT IOWANS – DERECHO INFO & HOW TO DONATE

Where to get help: Food, water, free meals, shelter in Cedar Rapids after storm

Iowans were devastated by the derecho storms; here’s how you can help

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