Slow Federal Response Puts Volunteers At Forefront Of Derecho Cleanup

By Guest Post

August 27, 2020

Guest post by Jack Brandsgard, a freelance writer from West Des Moines

A record-breaking derecho tore through Iowa on Aug. 10, destroying homes, decimating livelihoods and leaving Iowans desperate for help. But when Iowans need it most, government has failed them.

In times of crisis, citizens depend on swift, sweeping action from their elected officials. The response from the federal government, however, has been incremental, marred by indecision and bureaucratic red tape.

It took Gov. Kim Reynolds six days to request $4 billion in federal aid, and President Donald Trump initially signed for $45 million to be allocated as part of an emergency declaration. Trump did not approve requests in Linn County for critical individual assistance until Aug. 20 — 10 days after the derecho left some Iowans living in tents outside their damaged homes.

“Ridiculous,” said former U.S. Senate candidate Kimberly Graham. “It’s a joke.”

During this time, residents of Cedar Rapids — Iowa’s second-largest city — were left to fend for themselves. Many people, such as those living in low-income apartments like Oak Park Village, lack the resources necessary to survive on their own through extreme hardship.

“The folks in my district don’t have a lot of options,” Stacey Walker, who serves on the Linn County Board of Supervisors, said on a recent Friday. “So far, $45 million has been allocated to the state of Iowa for recovery. We could spend $45 million in one quadrant of Cedar Rapids.”

Walker grew up in Oak Park Village No. 1213, where the tree he grew up climbing is now sprawled across the pavement. It is a scene indicative of many around Cedar Rapids, with power lines strewn and street signs askew. On one street, a downed tree split a truck bed in half, and the neighbor’s car had its back window busted out.

At Oak Park Manor, a senior living facility that neighbors Oak Park Village, an entire tree rests on the headquarters building, with its brick walls caved in under the pressure. The facility was without power for 10 days, which took out its elevator service and made it difficult for the elderly residents to move around the building.

At Cedar Terrace apartments, refugees from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi face a unique set of challenges.

“This devastation happens and you already don’t know who to call, and even if you did, you can’t call anybody because the cell phone service is out,” said Walker. “Now imagine adding a language barrier on top. Now imagine adding that the streets are impassable and emergency personnel can’t get to you.”

In areas of the complex, the roof is badly damaged and in some cases completely missing, yet residents stayed in their homes for days due to a lack of alternatives. Walker makes multiple trips per day in a 10-seater van to transport residents to shelters and hotels.

“They’re not glamorous hotels,” he noted.

Down the street from Cedar Terrace is a more upscale apartment complex, where there is little to no damage due to higher quality construction.

“You cannot take economics and social equity out of the conversation when you’re talking about disasters,” Walker said. “It’s always the people in the lower income brackets that are hit the hardest.”

Many of the refugees work in meatpacking plants heavily affected by COVID-19, adding another layer to an already complex issue.

This is the backdrop as the federal government spins its tires trying to determine which Iowa counties qualify for aid. Here’s the reality: thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed, 14 million acres of corn – more than a third of Iowa’s most valuable crop – was wiped out and over 1 million Iowans were without power for days.

“The scope of this is much bigger than I expected,” said state Rep. Jeff Kurtz, D-Fort Madison. “The recovery process could take years.”

When Trump finally forked over FEMA money, he did so without eliminating the barriers many face in applying for aid. To gain relief, applicants must provide a Social Security number, annual household income figures, a phone number, a mailing address, an email address, insurance information and bank account information.

Countless Iowans, such as the people living in Oak Park Village, Cedar Terrace and other low-income neighborhoods, do not have access to this information, especially after the derecho ruined their homes and the records they kept.

The government put protocol before people and wasted valuable time in responding to a natural disaster, leaving Iowans in a lurch and stunting recovery efforts.

As such, the recovery efforts in disaster-stricken areas like Cedar Rapids are largely community-driven.

“The government? No, this is all Teamsters,” said Royceann Porter.

Porter is running the kitchen at Teamsters Local Union No. 238 in Cedar Rapids, where she and Rodney Lewis, who owns Rodney’s Kitchen in Waterloo, are providing between 300 and 400 meals per day to those in need.

Porter received more than $3,000 in donations to her Venmo account, which she used to buy supplies like paper plates, plastic utensils, feminine hygiene products, food and water.

Porter also called on organizations like Better Together and the Red Cape Brigade, and both Iowa City-based organizations delivered cargo vans full of supplies and food.

Jesse Case, the secretary treasurer of Teamsters 238, coordinated deliveries from two semi-trucks and two flat-bed trucks last Saturday. Case has partnered with churches and immigrant advocacy groups, in addition to recruiting community volunteers, to deliver food to trailer parks and retirement homes. Partners in Northwest Iowa delivered 500 pounds of vegetables, and trucks from the Quad Cities and Des Moines dropped off valuable goods.

Case and Porter’s efforts enabled over 1,000 people to be served in the first three days at the Teamsters hall, located at 5000 J Street SW in Cedar Rapids.

“It’s impossible to say how long the recovery efforts will last,” Case said. “But we’ll be here as long as there’s a need.”

Porter criticized those in power for their lack of response.

“They’re not doing anything,” she said. “They’re not helping these people.”

Liz Darnall, a member of the Community Development Department in Cedar Rapids, echoed the same sentiment.

“The feeling of a lot of citizens is the response was slow to get started,” said Darnall. “People hopefully are starting to get the help they need.”

Darnall is stationed at Taylor Elementary where she helps to provide food, supplies and clothes each day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Hawkeye Area Community Action Program has been instrumental in providing cleaning supplies, water, rakes and diapers, Darnall said.

Operation BBQ, a national nonprofit, is serving 500 hot meals at 11 sites – 5,500 total – around Iowa each day, with one of the locations being Taylor Elementary (720 7th Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids).

Stephanie Griffin, the director of communications for Teamsters 238, said people can get involved by donating money or goods, volunteering or spreading the message via social media or word of mouth.

“It’s amazing to see the community come together.”

Places To Donate:

United Way:
Teamsters 238:
Table to Table:
Derecho Resource Facebook Page:
Salvation Army:
Eastern Iowa Diaper Bank:
Meals on Wheels:
Feed Iowa First:
Advocates for Social Justice:

Items To Donate:

• Diapers (especially sizes 5 and 6)
• Water
• Canned food
• Feminine hygiene products
• Groceries
• Clothes
• Blankets
• Flashlights
• Ice
• Baby wipes
• Rakes
• Paper towels
• Paper plates
• Plastic utensils
• Cleaning supplies
• Toilet paper


By Jack Brandsgard, a freelance writer from West Des Moines
Posted 8/27/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

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