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  • Writer's pictureNEIA Red Cross

6 Months Later: 3 Red Cross Volunteers Reflect on the Iowa Derecho

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

On August 10, 2020, an unprecedented storm tore through Iowa, destroying homes, trees, crops and power lines in its place. After learning the storm was a derecho or land hurricane, Iowans came together to pick up the pieces. Six-months later, I spoke with three Iowans, who were also American Red Cross volunteers, about their reflections of the storm and the Red Cross response.

When the storm hit

Tom Hess is an amateur radio operator and storm spotter. He knew something bad was brewing.

“From inside our house, I watched the storm approaching,” Hess said. “When it got really windy, my wife and I and the two cats went to the basement to shelter during the worst of the storm. After about 20 minutes, we were back upstairs to see what had happened. We had about 15 trees in the yard that were down or severely broken.”

Disbelief hit Cliff Haynes on the Lake of the Ozarks when he heard of the storm while initially on vacation. “I was out of town, which actually made me more able to assist,” Haynes said. “We were getting updates through friends of friends. At first, I thought they were kidding when they said they were in their basement and they could hear trees falling down.”

Matt Carpenter, a recent college graduate was home when the storm hit and, like many at the time, didn’t think it was as serious as it was. “My windows rattled but I didn’t personally experience anything too worrying,” he said. “I think mid-westerners are notorious for their curiosity in weather events. When we hear a tornado is going to hit our first instinct is to step on the porch to see where it's coming from.”

Downed trees and power lines after Iowa derecho.

On the Ground

When Iowans came out of basements and shelters to survey the damage, some came away with little to no damage and counted their blessings. While too many faced devastations, particularly in Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas.

“The first thing that always comes to mind when thinking about the derecho was the drive into

Cedar Rapids on my first day. There wasn’t a single stoplight working and the entire road was

lined with thick stacks of tree branches and trunks. Fields of corn were blown over and starting to rot on the ground”, remarked Carpenter about his drive from Dubuque. “By the time I made it to the headquarters all I wanted to do was call every person I knew and tell them to get in their car and come help in whatever way possible.”

Cedar Terrace Apartments after Iowa derecho.

Red Crossers on the ground prepared to overcome challenges ranging from volunteers affected by the derecho, to communication systems being down to shelter facilities being too damaged to use.

“From the beginning, the very few reports from people on the ground, the images from Facebook, the lack of communication, the lack of media coverage didn’t seem to be getting through to make people realize how severe it was”, commented Haynes. “We overcame the COVID restrictions and got into our normal disaster flow. The people on the ground worked so hard to get relief to as many people as they could. It was good to see them overcome the adversities.”

COVID-19 created a unique and unprecedented challenge for our volunteers, but it didn’t stop them from ensuring that services were delivered to those in need.

Carpenter remembered long days of helping as many people as he possibly could.

“I was a runner and most of my tasks involved driving between the warehouse distribution site and commercial suppliers to get the necessary equipment for our operations,” he said. “Often when I was driving back and forth I met community members in need, and I made quick decisions on how to help them then and there. I was assisting a family of 8 whose house was no longer inhabitable, giving them food and tools to make it through the next few weeks. You try to make everyone happy and help as many people as you can, but the disaster is always bigger than you and that’s a reality you have to push against every day.”

Matt Carpenter loads a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle with meals.

Lessons Learned

While the Red Cross consistently works to prepare for the unexpected, every disaster is different and presents new challenges. The Iowa derecho was no different. We quickly learned that, even during a pandemic, having volunteers providing in-person services, is critical. While some of what we do following a disaster can be done virtually, affected communities rely on us to be there to offer care and comfort. Red Crossers from all over the country answered the call and showed up in Iowa.

The lessons learned during the response to the derecho informed how the Red Cross responded to other large disasters around the country, such as the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and wildfires in the West. The Red Cross continues to assess procedures and adapt in order to meet the needs of families affected by disasters.

Looking back, the derecho was more than a collection of challenges that had to be met. It was also a reason to come together, despite the damage and COVID-19. Ultimately, our volunteers sheltered more than 2,500 people affected by the storm. In the days and weeks following August 10, volunteers distributed more than 98,000 meals and snacks and nearly 2,500 cases of water in the August heat to those who needed it. As folks worked to repair and rebuild, Red Cross volunteers distributed more than 18,500 relief supplies. “The most important thing is to realize how hard Red Cross volunteers will work to serve those in need”, said Haynes. “They are the most compassionate group of people on earth. They will let almost nothing stop them from helping.”

We’re ready for the next disaster, but we need your help. Tom Hess correctly remarked, “Red Cross can always use more volunteers. And the more training they have, the better. In events like this derecho, you never know what skills will be needed and are in short supply. Skills such as an emergency response vehicle driver, working in a warehouse or a shelter, picking up supplies, distributing food and supplies. Whatever the need, it is great to have volunteers that can step in and do the job.”

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