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Weeks after a derecho hit, Eastern Iowa is still struggling

Eastern Iowa is reeling a month after a rare windstorm called a derecho devastated the region, destroying hundreds of homes and half a million acres of corn. Newshour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports on the financial burden of the derecho, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On August 10th, nearly six weeks ago, a rare windstorm known as a "derecho" — pummeled a 750-mile-stretch of the Midwest with upwards of 100 mile-per-hour winds.

    Eastern Iowa and the city of Cedar Rapids were hit particularly hard with up to 140 mile per hour wind gusts –similar to a Category 4 hurricane.

    Newshour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

  • Christopher Booker:

    They're often compared to a hurricane, but the winds of a derecho, while just as furious, behave a bit differently.

    Spanish for 'straight ahead', unlike a hurricane or a tornado, the winds of a derecho don't spin, rather, they push in one single direction and the storm marches along in a straight line.

    They form when the wet air of a thunderstorm meets drier air — creating strong winds of 58 mph or more –called downbursts. And while not a regular summer occurrence, they can appear quickly, making it difficult to predict and prepare for.

  • Christopher Booker:

    How much warning did you guys have?

  • Raymond Siddell:

    Yeah it was about 10 to 15 minutes. I heard the sirens go off. When the sirens go off, it's typically like high winds, but they're usually a gust. You know, they don't hang out for 45 minutes and they're not 122 to 140 mile per hour winds.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Even if Raymond Siddell had more time, it's hard to see how the destruction of the August 10th derecho in Eastern Iowa would have been avoided.

  • Raymond Siddell:

    It was massive. It's just– it's catastrophic for our area.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In the days following the derecho, with power lines and thousands of downed trees, Eastern Iowa began to assess what had happened.

    In Cedar Rapids, more than 1,600 buildings damaged 1,000 housing units were deemed unlivable.

    Siddell, a community organizer in Cedar Rapids, manages a resource page on Facebook with over 67,000 members for those affected by last month's derecho.

    He said that temporary housing is still needed for those displaced residents. As of two weeks ago, it was about 150 families, but the city says that number is "fluid, as housing is repaired and rental units become available."

  • Raymond Siddell:

    It's hard to find housing when so much destruction takes place.So I know that we do have some in hotel rooms currently, but we also have some that are living in homeless shelters.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And for those who aren't displaced, Siddell says residents are also still struggling to clear tree debris.

  • Raymond Siddell, Organizer, Iowa Derecho Resource Page:

    That's going to go on for a very long time. They've passed through neighborhoods one to two times at this point, trying to remove debris from the curb side. But as soon as it's removed, residents are bringing what was in their backyard to their front yard to have that removed as well. People are tired. You know, they're exhausted.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But the derecho didn't just leave its mark on the city of Cedar Rapids and its suburbs. Iowa's rural farming communities were also hit hard.

    Just west of Cedar Rapids, farmers like Lance Lillibridge are still assessing just how much of their crop was destroyed.

  • Lance Lillibridge, Iowa Corn Growers Association:

    Our corn was twisted up pretty bad. It's still harvestable, unlike a lot of people who were zeroed out, their corn was totally wiped out.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Lillibridge is vice president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

    He says hundreds of farmers were affected this year, as the windstorm flattened their crops and burst open grain bins.

    The clean up is still going on.

  • Lance Lillibridge:

    So this one is by far probably the biggest weather event I've ever seen in my lifetime.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The USDA estimates at least 550,000 acres of Iowa corn won't be harvested this fall because of the derecho and Lillibridge says crop insurance doesn't fully cover what was lost for farmers.

  • Lance Lillibridge:

    Financially, it's devastating. Even though we have federal crop insurance, that'll never, ever cover what some people have lost. Crop insurance will only cover maybe 70 to 90 percent of what you've lost. If you have two or three of these events in a row, you know, maybe it's flooding or maybe it's a hailstorm or maybe it's a derecho or whatever the case may be. Long term, it can be real devastating on the insurance part of it.

  • Chris:

    So this isn't just a necessarily a one time economic hit.

  • Lance Lillibridge:

    Absolutely.Some people will never make it up and they'll just be done. Unfortunately, we've heard that from some guys, they're not going to rebuild and they're probably not going to farm again.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For Iowa, the recent derecho is just the latest environmental disaster.In 2008, the worst flooding in cedar rapids history caused $10 billion in damages to the area. In 2012, a drought hit the midwest that impacted the entire corn belt.

    This year, it's a double whammy, the loss from the derecho and coronavirus recession.

    Farmers had already seen the price of corn-based ethanol drop as demand for gas fell as Americans stayed home because of the coronavirus.

  • Lance Lillibridge:

    A lot of plants shut down or idled back some, you know, cut production.

  • Raymond Siddell:

    It's like being kicked while being down, right? There were so many people that still weren't working or they weren't working the same number of hours and earning the same wage that they were before. So to then experience something catastrophic like this, you know, those that had already depleted their savings or tapped into a retirement account, maybe a college fund for their children.

    Those that were uninsured and those that just fall into an already struggling group, you know, they're just being hit that much harder, trying to clean up or recover from this.

  • Christopher Booker:

    More than five weeks later, 27 counties in Iowa are still under a state disaster declaration. So far, residents have received only $7 million dollars from FEMA.

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