Describe your experience with the derecho

Describe your experience with the derecho


On August 10, 2020, people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, experienced a derecho. It is sometimes described as an inland hurricane and it progressed along an East/West line that extended right through the middle of town.

Timelapse track of the derecho across the Midwest

The storm did tremendous damage and caused the loss of about 2/3 of our tree cover in town and more loss in the future as more injured trees die because of the damage they received.

A few weeks before, my friend and fellow sculptor, Steve Piper, had borrowed my pipe bending tool to use on a project he was working on. On the day of the derecho it appeared to be shaping up as a perfectly nice and normal day. There was a storm predicted to come later according to the weather service, however. Steve called and asked if I was going to be around so he could return the tool. He stopped by and returned the borrowed items having made a dandy little storage box for some of the parts. Then he stayed for a little while and we chatted on our deck. We were careful to maintain the correct social distancing since it was right in the middle of the Covid Pandemic.

As predicted, the sky darkened and Steve took off for home. All hell started to break loose. We were inside but our house has lots of big plate glass windows and we live on a wooded lot with a jillion trees. The rain was like a waterfall blowing sideways. We could see branches that had fallen outside when there was an occasional break in the intensity of the wind. We were pretty worried because we have quite a few very big and very old trees that are close to the house. Any limb of which would probably be big enough to punch right through our roof if it fell on us. After a while, things began to die down and we could go outside to inspect the damage. What a mess.

While limbs fell of course, none did any serious structural damage. There was lots of damage to the fascia trim which is more serious than it might seem since it is vital part of keeping the surface of our tar and gravel roof intact. There was only one small hole punched in the car port and it was easily fixed. But all around the house there were so many small downed limbs that they were almost impassible. The storm knocked out the electricity, the telephone, and the cable tv which is where we get our internet access from.

One of our biggest problems of being without electricity was all the stuff in our refrigerator could spoil. So not only would we be without anything to eat, but we would have to buy everything again when the electricity returned. Remember, all the grocery stores were having the same problems we were. Steve came to our rescue later in the day by bringing his generator over and letting us run it for a couple of hours to see that the fridge stayed cold. We could see that having electricity was going to be a problem. Our son Lance also helped with a generator that he got through his boss. There was some expense involved in having it so it was not a very good long-term solution. We decided to buy a generator of our own. That could have been a big problem since everyone in town was trying to buy one, but there didn’t seem to be a shortage of them. Using one was not without a few wrinkles itself. We had to fill it with gasoline just before we went to bed to try and make it last till morning, then fill it up again for it to run through the day. But it did the job. We learned all the little tricks of how to get the most use out of it. Now we have one if the need arises again.

To get onto the internet we had to drive over to Bruegers Bagels and take advantage of their free WiFi access. This was cumbersome because we had to do it while we were in our van so juggling our laptops was a trick. We also only had limited battery life, so the easygoing continuous use that we were used to was a little curtailed.

Over the next few days we started the process of cleaning things up. Karen and our friends Linda Rutherford and Diana Tharp worked like troopers dragging fallen limbs out to the street. They did a super job. I tried to contribute by cutting up logs with my chainsaw, but ran into nothing but frustration. My saw was dull and hardly worked and I found I was having a really hard time walking around on the uneven ground. After a while I realized I was a danger to myself and it was better for me not to have a powerful, sharp, mechanical device within easy range of chopping off some of my parts.

In time, we had to deal with the insurance companies and finding arborists and roofers to do the necessary repairs. The tree guys were not hard to find since the whole town was swarming with them. They must have some kind of network that alerts them when a disaster occurs. We had bids all over the spectrum, from a few thousand dollars up to over $20,000. We ended up with a company that agreed to do all the work we needed for what the insurance company would pay. This included removing a huge catalpa tree that had started to split despite the fact that we had had it cabled when we moved to this house. By calling around I found a saw mill just a few miles out of town that would collect the trunk and would store it till it was cured enough to process. We worked out a deal where we would get a prime slab the length of the trunk with “live edges”. The saw mill would do all this for having the rest of the wood.

Cutting the Catalpa

The work on the roof was another story. How this process worked turned out to be not so good. Since our roof was in need of repair, but didn’t actually leak, we were way down the list compared to people who had gaping holes open to the sky and were just worried about keeping rain out of their houses. It was a year or so before we could get anything done with that. Based on things we were told along the way, there was some misunderstanding and disagreement about just what was covered. We ended up paying way more than I think we should have, but in the end it all got done. Luckily we had enough savings to cover all the expenses.


August 10, 2020, began like any other August day. It was hot but normal for that time of year. There were no storm warnings in play that we knew about. A friend of Butch’s, Steve Piper, had borrowed a tool and said he was going to return it that morning. Otherwise we had nothing planned in particular and were just going about our regular day. We never have the tv on during the day as a rule so if a warning was issued later in the morning, we didn’t know about it. The skies were clear.

Shortly before 12:30 in the afternoon we did notice that the sky was darkening and the wind was coming up. Steve decided that it would be best to head home. It seemed like just minutes after he left that the sky got even darker and the wind and rain hit hard. Butch was upstairs in our bedroom and I called for him to come down in case trees hit our roof. The wind howled and a glimpse out of the big windows showed big trees swaying and bending with the force of the storm. We had truly never seen such winds before. Visibility outside was very poor and shredded leaves from the trees began to plaster onto the windows. We began to hear loud thumps and bangs as debris landed on our roof and the power went off. Usually, Iowa wind storms are over in just a few minutes or at least die down pretty quickly. This storm howled and battered us for at least 45 minutes that seemed like hours. It was very frightening because I was sure that a tree or big limb would crash through our roof at any moment. Finally after what seemed like forever the wind and rain began to die down.

I opened our front door and realized that it was blocked by limbs and debris and that we couldn’t get out that way. I tried the tub room door and it was the same story. I could get out of the carport door and get as far as the edge of the carport roof in that direction.

Blocked stairwell

The front stairway was packed with limbs, potted plants and other debris. The neighborhood was a wreck. Trees were down everywhere, our driveway was blocked, power lines were down, and it was eerily quiet. We had debris all over our house and shop but no windows were broken and we had no evidence of roof leaks. I saw a couple of neighbors in the street but I was afraid to pick through the debris to walk down the hill. We shouted our assurances to each other that none of us had been injured.

It was very hard to get information about what had happened. Our power was out and was down for 13 long days. Internet was gone from our neighborhood and it was over 5 weeks before we were connected again. We also lost cell phone service but that was back in a spotty way after only a day or two. The only information we got at first came from friends and neighbors. Many people were tremendously kind and helpful to us. Our neighbor, Chris Schultz and his girlfriend Dalin cleared the end of our driveway and took the trees off the fence between our yards. Unfortunately, their house suffered significant damage to their roof and three rooms at the back of their house were smashed. Our friend Steve came by the next day and loaned us a generator for a few hours. We plugged in our refrigerator and charged up all lanterns, phones, computers, etc.

We realized we had some big problems. Power was out in every part of Cedar Rapids so that meant we had no access to gas, ATM machines, or stores for food and ice. We got a tip that we could drive to Central City for gas so we decided to try it. That way we could use the car to charge devices and even run small appliances like the coffee pot. We don’t usually keep much cash on hand but there wasn’t a reliable way to use credit cards without power. As we ventured out of our neighborhood the full scope of the destruction was evident. Roads were blocked everywhere and the beautiful trees of our city were shredded and down. Later we found out that 70% of the tree canopy of the city was destroyed. It was also estimated that 90% of all businesses and homes in town suffered some kind of damage. On our drive to Central City we saw that power poles and lines were down along highway 13 for mile after mile. After a couple of days, it was clear that we would be without power for a while so we decided to buy a generator to keep the refrigerator going. We also bought some battery powered and rechargeable lanterns and fans to get us through the long nights. For internet, we mainly went up to the Bruegers Bagels on the corner and tapped into their free WiFi once per day to stay in touch with the world.

On the way to Central City

In the days that followed we learned that the storm that hit us was called a derecho, a term we had never heard before. It is a kind of inland hurricane characterized by very strong winds. Cedar Rapids had been hit by winds of up to 140mph.

The damage to our house was mostly on the roof. While there were no holes, the entire edge of our tar and gravel roof was dented and gouged by trees and limbs that fell on it. This metal edge provides the structure that holds the tar and gravel surface on the house and had to be replaced.

Also there was an enormous amount of tree debris down in our yard. I counted 17 trees larger than 6” in diameter that were completely down. The largest loss was the towering catalpa tree from the back of the house. It had cracked all the way down its trunk and had to be removed. We also had huge limbs broken high up in our oldest oaks which were dangling dangerously over the house. People began to stop by the house offering to give us estimates for clearing the house and cutting down damaged trees. Prices ranged from 10,000-20,000 dollars. We drove over to our insurance agent to start a claim but it was weeks before an adjuster came to look at our house and there were still trees on the roof. Our neighbors, the Fishers, kindly let our tree trucks drive through their yard to get to the back of our lot. Otherwise the big extension trucks would not have been able to get through.

Downed limbs on our deck

 The city said that homeowners should drag tree debris to the curb to be picked up by city crews. We had arranged for the same tree service that our neighbor used to take care of the trees in our yard. Since we had no holes in our house, we were far down their list which seemed only fair since so many people had many more and worse problems than us. I was able to clear out the trees from our steps and from our deck pretty much by myself. The rest of the yard was really daunting but my friends Linda Rutherford and Diana Tharp volunteered to help work on it. Among the three of us we dragged a ton of limbs down to the street on tarps and stacked them in a towering pile by the street. We also made a gigantic pile in the back to clear out some areas. We left those for our tree guys to move.

Clearing out the piles of limbs

The city contracted with a Wisconsin company to begin clearing the piles of limbs off city streets. The trucks were the size of 2 semis attached end to end and had a huge claw for picking up the trees. We called them Jawa trucks because they were like the ones in Star Wars. They took the debris to 4 big lots around the city where everything was ground into mulch. It was an enormous undertaking but all streets were cleared in less than a year which was amazing.

The Jawa trucks

I feel grateful that we made it through such a storm without injury or even devastating damage to our home. Most damage is now taken care of after about 15 months. Insurance took care of a big chunk of our costs but we added improvements which, of course, was out of our pockets. I know that others are still dealing with their own lack of resources, insurance problems, lack of materials, and unscrupulous contractors – so we feel lucky. I still mourn for the lost trees that made our city beautiful. People are replanting but we won’t see the results in our lifetime. There are still times that I come around a corner and see how bare a view appears and get tears in my eyes for what was lost.

Downed limbs in our driveway

This post is part of the StoryWorth project that I am participating in.
At the ButchieBoy main page click the Storyworth category to see all the entries

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