History In The Making: The Disaster No One Is Talking About
By: Jeffrey Kiley - Advantage Archives
Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs, a professor at the University of Iowa, played a key roll in helping to create the periodic table of elements. He also founded the first State Weather Service in the country, and in 1888, was first to identify and name the straight-line storm phenomenon he called the “derecho.” 132 years later, one would devastate the very state it was first categorized in.
I am writing something a little different today. It is not related to old newspapers or history, but it is historic.
On Monday, August 10th, 2020, parts of Iowa were devastated by a “derecho,” an intense, widespread, and fast-moving thunderstorm with incredible winds. Just two miles from my house, recorded winds of 112 MPH ripped through the small town of Midway. Winds of that magnitude are equivalent to a potent category two, or low category three hurricane.
You would think that a hurricane in Iowa would be a prominent national news story. With a few exceptions, it hasn’t been. If you don’t live here and don’t know what I am talking about, I can certainly understand why. So let me tell you a little bit about it:
My hometown of Cedar Rapids was the state’s hardest-hit city. We are no strangers to natural disasters. In 2008, Cedar Rapids garnered considerable national attention when unprecedented flooding put 10 square miles of our city underwater as the river that runs through our downtown crested 19 feet above the flood stage.
That monumental flood impacted 7,198 properties, including 5,390 houses, and dislocated more than 18,000 residents. The damage caused by the 2008 floods and tornadoes in Iowa is considered the sixth-largest FEMA disaster declaration based on estimated financial public assistance. This is worse.
The floods of 2008 had a devastating impact on nearly 15% of our city, but this storm touched 100% of it—all 72 square miles. But the damage isn’t limited to Cedar Rapids.
The derecho was born in Nebraska and pummeled our state from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. After wreaking havoc on the Hawkeye State, it tore through Illinois and then moved on to parts of Indiana.
Beth Malicki, the evening anchor on KCRG-TV9, the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids has covered a lot of major news stories over the course of her career, including extensive coverage of the ’08 flood. She succinctly summed up the situation in a tweet:
I’m getting concerned that the damage from a storm system called “derecho” isn’t getting much national news coverage. THIS MATTERS. Why? Money and help follow news coverage. This isn’t a few trees down and the inconvenience of power out. It’s like a tornado hit whole counties.
~ Beth Malicki
Beth is an incredible advocate for the Cedar Rapids community. Some of the best coverage we have gotten is thanks to her efforts. Check out her interview on Greta Van Susteren’s show to see what I mean. Or listen to her conversation with Governor Reynolds.
Beth has been active on social media, and it appears she thinks national coverage of this disaster has much to be desired. If you follow the #IowaDerecho hashtag on twitter, you will see she is not alone. It seems like a large number of Iowans are feeling ignored right now.
Does the rest of the nation understand that it has been seven days now, and the full extent of the damage is still not known? It has been seven days of asking ourselves, “what do we do now?” in the aftermath of this ferocious storm?
Tens of thousands of trees are down, landing on homes, tearing down power lines, and blocking off roads. There have been hundreds of thousands of people without power, and while service has been restored to some, the majority are still in the dark. Hot and humid weather conditions are making a back-breaking cleanup effort an even more exhausting job. There are people living in tents outside of their condemned apartments. There are refrigerators and freezers full of spoiled food. People can’t cook a warm meal, and they don’t have the ability to keep perishable food cold. Businesses and homes have had their roofs ripped off. There are entire buildings reduced to rubble. Semi-trailers remain flipped over or in ditches where they were blown off highways. In some areas, mobile phones have been rendered useless (or limited at best). Food staples at the grocery stores are scarce. Over 40% of Iowa’s crops have suffered damage. Restaurants and businesses already struggling to survive the pandemic’s impacts have been dealt yet another crushing blow.
Our libraries, museums, historical societies, schools, and cultural organizations have fared no better.
Advantage has the great fortune of being partnered with over 1000 institutions across the United States, providing free access to local historical content, including newspaper pages dating back to 1773.
The partnerships with all of our community partners across the country are very meaningful, and our connections to them run deep. However, for some of us born and raised here, our partnerships in Iowa hold a special place in our hearts.
As an Iowa based company, owned and operated by Iowans, we recognize that we have been blessed to be a part of helping preserve and provide access to OUR collective history. The history that shaped OUR communities.
In Iowa, we have had the privilege of forming close relationships with our partners in 347 communities. They have digitized 24,856,222 pages of Iowa newspapers and made their history accessible in 169 free-to-use archives. Almost all of those communities have been affected to some degree by the derecho. Many of our partners need help. I’m not sure the rest of the country understands that.
One of our partners is, Zack Kucharski, the executive editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. He, too, is frustrated that more people across the country are not noticing Iowa’s plight. He recently told Lyz Lenz:
The lack of national attention is concerning. Especially because there seems to be a correlation between attention and recovery dollars, and yet, our ability to advocate for ourselves is limited because we’re still focused on getting out of our homes
I encourage you to check out Lyz’s piece published in the Washington Post earlier this week. She has a much better way with words than I do. I couldn’t agree more with what Zack had to say to her. To say this lack of national coverage concerns me would be an understatement. The devastation is overwhelming. So many of our partners across the midwest have suffered losses and require assistance. We need to shine a spotlight on the damage and ensure that people know how big a toll this storm has taken on our communities. We need to spread the word to our peers across the country and seek their support.
But we aren’t waiting for help. We aren’t waiting for anything. Iowans have taken it upon themselves to do anything and everything they can to ensure their neighbors are safe and have access to a warm meal, a cool drink, or a place to do laundry. There is always someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on. The sounds of chainsaws and generators fill the streets as whole neighborhoods pull together to help one another. If you listen close enough, you might even hear some laughter as people try to lift the spirits of their friends and family. “Iowa nice” has been on full display, despite the hardship.
In 1986, Mr. Rodgers shared this famous anecdote:
“When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Here in Iowa, we don’t have to look very hard. The helpers are everywhere. Watching how Iowans are helping Iowans in this trying time provides us with the strength and hope we need to push on.
In that spirit, I want to strongly encourage Iowa institutions who were lucky enough to escape with minimal or no damage, and especially those institutions across the country, far from the storm’s path of destruction: Please reach out to your peers in Iowa to see what YOU can do to help.
I talk a lot about “community.” We even built the Advantage search platform and business model around offering free access to local history via a “Community History Archive.” I have fully embraced the idea of the community not being just a city or a place, but also a feeling of fellowship with others—others who share common attitudes, interests, and goals.
If you are a library, your community of Iowa libraries needs you. If you are a genealogist, your community of Iowa genealogists needs you. If you are a learning institution, your community of Iowa colleges, universities, and K-12 schools need you. If you are a museum, your community of Iowa museums needs you. If you value history, service, or learning, your community of like-minded individuals in Iowa needs you! If you are a newspaper publisher or TV news outlet, the Iowa media community needs you! (and some extra coverage outside of Iowa would be appreciated too)
It could be weeks before we have a better understanding of who needs help and to what degree. Even the tiny sample of the damage reports we have seen related to institutions and historical sites have been heart-wrenching to read. For example:
- Our friends at the Marion Public Library have suffered such extensive damage to their building that it is considered a complete loss. They will need to find a new permanent home.
- The beautiful main library on the University of Iowa’s campus was damaged.
- The Newton Public Library was damaged by not one or two, but six trees that came crashing down on top of it.
- The historic Brucemore Mansion in Cedar Rapids has seen dozens of century-old trees snapped in half. Each of the seven historical buildings located on the estate took some damage.
- The library in Chelsea had to move all of the library’s books to a nearby school after their roof was severely damaged.
- Hundreds of old gravestones in cemetery’s across Iowa have been toppled.
- The chimneys on the Tama County Courthouse have crumbled, and the roof was severely damaged.
- The last remaining building of the Sinclair meatpacking plant built in the 1870s has collapsed.
- Every building in the Cedar Rapids School District has some degree of damage. There is significant tree damage at every school. Sixteen of the district’s buildings have suffered significant roof damage, which has caused considerable water and structural damage.
- The iconic white steeple atop College Church in Wheaton was left dangling off of the side of the building.
- The well known Glovik Parish Center of St. Wenceslaus Church had the roof of the building blow off.
- The Iowa Veterans Home has extensive building damage.
- Marshalltown is still recovering from the 2018 tornado but was not spared from the 2020 derecho. Monday’s storm damaged the historic courthouse dome, which was under repair, and ten of their school buildings were damaged.
- The Chandler Pump Factory building in Linn County, constructed in 1890, no longer has a roof and has extensive damage to its upper floor.
- The yard of Marion’s historic Grainger House Victorian Museum was littered with pieces of the roof, downed trees, and bricks from the building that was constructed in 1848.
- In the historic Davenport neighborhood of McClellan Heights, a majority of its massive trees were lost. The neighborhood was famous because of those trees, some of which dated back to the Civil War
- One of Cedar Rapids’ oldest homes, the Averill house, has a tilted tower, and a damaged roof.
Unfortunately, this is the very tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t represent even a small fraction of the destruction. I am confident that this list of damage to historical and culturally significant locations and learning institutions will grow exponentially.
There are hundreds more, and we want to do our part too. We want every Iowa (and IL, WI, or NE) library, museum, genealogical society, heritage site, educational institution, historical society, municipality, and non-profit organization to know: WE ARE HERE TO HELP!
For us to help, we must first know who needs it. Please help us identify institutions in need, and spread the word, that if there is something Advantage is equipped to do that could help them, we will.
If you feel that YOU can be of assistance, PLEASE contact any one of the 1000s of organizations in Iowa who could use it.
I have seen many “Iowa Strong” posts, but even the strongest Iowan needs help sometimes.
Please share this, and help spread the word! Make the #IowaDerecho hashtag trend.
This disaster has not gotten the attention it deserves. The more people we make aware of the situation, the more help Iowa communities will receive.