Screaming Into the Wind
Remembering Iowa’s 2020 derecho
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It was just a summer storm. That’s what I heard at a Zoom meeting that day with my co-workers. I didn’t have time to pay attention. I’d been up since 4 a.m. working. That was my normal wake-up time that summer. I had to get work done before my kids were up, too. That morning, I recorded the last part of an audiobook, started writing my column, and went through letters to the editor to ready them for publication. It was 10 a.m. and already my kids were whining for me to stop. My son, 7 years old, hung in the doorway in his underwear, his wide, expectant eyes reflecting in the laptop monitor.
When I think about it now, I do remember my boss saying, “The storm could be bad.” I do remember the red parts of the satellite map, which I checked right before getting my kids lunch. But it was August, and I had been working from home and single-parenting since March. Everything felt so fragile. I didn’t know how much more could break.
First came the rain, then the sirens. The kids went to the basement, and I stayed upstairs looking for Waffles, the cat. He was outside somewhere in the middle of all that — the green of the sky and the wind and the rain. I looked out the front window and I heard a crack. And then I couldn’t see anything except branches covering my window. I heard more cracks, hundreds of gunshots echoing through the neighborhood. I ran downstairs.
I reassured my kids. “Our house will be okay. Waffles is fine.” I believed nothing that I said. But my kids did. They settled down. The power went out. I opened my laptop and started working. Even while the world blew down around me, I still had deadlines.
And then the wind stopped, and my daughter and I went outside. We had to crawl under the large branch that had fallen on our house. Everything was broken. Our whole world was broken. Roofs mangled, trees twisted. Already, my neighbor’s son had his chainsaw running. The air buzzed with the sound of chainsaws. We walked down to First Avenue, the main street that runs through town, and the roads were blocked by fallen trees and power lines.
At some point, an editor who was waiting on a draft of a freelance assignment called me. I couldn’t remember her name. “Who is this?” I said.
“It’s Lisa, you know.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My town is destroyed.”
She told me she’d call me back. And I hung up. I wouldn’t remember who she was for an entire week. But we found Waffles.
I know I tried to call for help. Most of my calls wouldn’t go through. My friends tried to make me a hotel reservation for me, but no one was answering phones. Nothing was online. Cell service was spotty.
At 4 p.m., I drove my kids out of town, swerving around fallen trees. I saw a billboard bent in half. A Tires Plus building crumpled like an aluminum can. Trees reaching into homes.
That was when I started crying. I said nothing. I just cried, and my children said nothing either. We drove to Cedar Falls. My kids ate candy in the backseat. When we finally arrived at a hotel, their credit card machine wasn’t working, because even there, 50 miles away, the internet was down. They gave us a room anyway.
My daughter remembers me saying, “Listen, I’m tired. My kids are tired. Please just give us a room.” She told me that last week as we sat by a pool on vacation. “Remember when you had to beg to get us a room?” I didn’t remember. Not until that moment.
The derecho of August 10, 2020, was a fast-moving storm that blew through the Midwest on a Monday. When it hit Cedar Rapids at 12:30, it brought straight-line winds with gusts between 80 and 140 miles per hour — the equivalent of a major hurricane.
No part of Cedar Rapids was unbroken.
Abby Finkenauer was my congresswoman then. She was on her honeymoon when the storm hit. She and her husband tried to rush back, but the storm was moving through Wisconsin, where they were. Finkenauer knew it was bad, but she didn’t know how bad until she got back home and saw the damage.
“I still can’t understand it,” she told me in an interview. “It was and is so awful.”
By Wednesday, she’d rallied her campaign staff to set up grills and start giving away meals, water, and diapers. She asked for donations of generators and started connecting with constituents. “We ran out of food in one hour,” she said. “And it was everybody who needed everything. Everyone was affected.”
“Where is the National Guard? Where is FEMA?” Finkenaur asked city leaders. “We need help!” She tried to meet with the governor, Kim Reynolds, a Republican, who refused to take her calls. Two days after the storm, she held a press conference with city leaders to beg for assistance.
While Finkenauer was holding a press conference, I was in a conference room set up by my newspaper in the building where we printed the paper. I listened and wrote a column for The Washington Post. It was titled, “An inland hurricane tore through Iowa. You probably didn’t hear about it.”
For the past year, Iowans would complain that we were ignored by “major media” and that felt true to some extent, cable news covering the flattened corn, while people went homeless. But it was our local leaders who failed us.
State Sen. Liz Mathis, a former TV journalist, told me at the time that she got so frustrated with the lack of help that she used her journalism skills to get the number of the head of the National Guard and begged him to come.
But asking for help was like screaming into the wind. We needed help. People were homeless. The Red Cross took four days to set up a shelter in town. I had put my cellphone number at the end of a newspaper article about the storm (usually I put my office phone). As a result, I began receiving calls from neighbors who hadn’t had a meal in days, stuck in their homes.
But that same day, the city’s mayor told a local television station that we didn’t need the National Guard. Later reporting by that same news station revealed that surrounding counties were offering help and assistance, but the county emergency coordinator turned them down. And offers of help sent to the mayor were also ignored. Why? Well, the mayor said he had no idea what the National Guard would do? What use could they be? (Later, they’d come help clear the roads.) The county emergency coordinator said they had things under control, but it’s clear they didn’t. I believe neither man cared to know nor fully understood the full scope of the damage.
Iowans were yelling for help, but few people were listening.
It took eight days for the president to sign the federal disaster declaration, and even then, he only approved part of the aid the state requested.
The Friday after the storm, Finkenauer finally met with Reynolds, eking out five minutes after a press conference. She asked for immediate help. “You always make things political,” the governor told her.
When the derecho hit, Nancy Mwirotsi, founder of Pursuit of Innovation 515 in Des Moines, immediately began working with her nonprofit to gather food and supplies to bring them to the immigrant population on the west side of Cedar Rapids.
“When I got there,” Mwirotsi told me, “no one had been there besides emergency services. It’s like no one in Cedar Rapids remembered this part of town.”
Mwirotsi spent days cooking meals and gathering supplies and was frustrated by a lack of concern or care from city leaders. Mwirotsi, who also speaks Swahili, worked as a translator for the media and nonprofits to help get food and aid to those hit hardest But it felt hopeless. “So many people showed up and used the poverty and devastation as a photo op, but what changed?”
She brought up the Facebook pages that started as a way to coordinate aid among neighbors. “That was great for the people who could have internet or speak English,” she said. “But the problem is, so many other people in Cedar Rapids were left behind and still are. These are the blind spots. They are still the blind spots. And now, everyone has forgotten.”
In the weeks following the derecho, I interviewed more than 30 city leaders, both on the record and on background, to untangle the multi-level failure of leadership. After I wrote that article, I was called by my boss, who criticized me for being “unfair” to the mayor.
I had been washing my underwear in a plastic tub on my neighbor’s lawn. I had been writing my columns, stringing for TheWashington Post, and navigating the repairs on my own home, while shuttling my kids between hotels. I’d been delivering meals and volunteering to serve food. Chef José Andrés had read my column for the Post and had sent in money and a team to coordinate food relief efforts. I helped with those. Sitting in my car calling local restaurants and nonprofits until I got through to enough people who could help. My tweets asking for help had gone viral and raised over $30,000 for the local chapter of Meals on Wheels.
Later, my columns on local accountability would be cited as one of the reasons for my poor performance and used to justify firing me.
Tuesday, August 10, marked the one-year anniversary of the day my town was destroyed. I spent the day crying and texting my former colleagues. So many of them have left journalism now. It all feels so raw. That August was the beginning of our undoing. We are proud of the work we did. And yet, we also know the stories we weren’t allowed to tell. A friend tells me how she tried to get someone to write about the refugee community on the west side of town, who had been left homeless, and was met with no response. Another outlet would report that story days later.
I remember trying so hard to get someone to write about landlords and the code violations that may have contributed to apartment buildings being so severely damaged in the winds. And when my efforts failed, I started working on that story myself. Then I was fired. I lost all my contacts. All my sources. I have five more stories like that. Just gone. And even worse, the people I tried to keep in contact with, the ones I promised I wouldn’t just use for stories and abandon them, I had to abandon them. Their contacts were in my work email.
My congresswoman was voted out of office, but she’s running for Senate. Nancy Mwirotsi feels disillusioned with all of our state’s leaders and our media. I cannot blame her. But she is still here. And we are all still screaming.
This week, I watch my newsfeed fill with remembrances. The city is replanting the tree canopy. Local media stories celebrate how “we” all came together. How we triumphed. That’s the story we want to tell, so we don’t have to answer for the incompetence and the homelessness and the houses and lives still mangled.
I do not feel triumphant. I am not proud of us. My roof is finally fixed. But I know the town is still broken.
I loved my friend Ben’s essay he wrote just days after the storm. Here is the Post op-ed I wrote that brought World Central Kitchen to town. I wrote so many other things. Here are a few of the articles I wrote. That I am very, very proud of.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. Subscriptions allow me to pay writers like Jessica and others an above-market rate for their work. Thank you so much for supporting this newsletter.