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In Derecho’s Wake, More Than 250,000 in Midwest Struggle Without Power

2020-08-13 23:13:19

A group of storms that tore through the Midwest this week has left homes destroyed, crops demolished and over a quarter of a million people still without power days later.

Nearly 100,000 people in Northern Illinois were still without electricity on Thursday morning, according to ComEd, the utility company that services the area. In Iowa, about 200,000 people were without power.

“Is it Thursday?” Clarissa Huilman, 34, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said in a phone call. “We still don’t have power back,” she added as she watched workers trying to remove a 75-foot tree that had crashed onto her one-story home, puncturing its roof and intruding into the living room and dining room.

The storms wreaked havoc beyond knocking out power to the region: Traffic on Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids was halted when semitrailer trucks were overturned on the northbound and southbound lanes. One neighborhood posted a makeshift “dead end” sign as residential roads were blocked and homes were smothered by fallen trees.

School reopenings in several districts were delayed because of the storms. Some residents had to drive out of town to find gas to power generators.

The rare group of storms, called a derecho (pronounced deh-REY-cho), brought hurricane-force winds of over 100 miles per hour to the Midwest. At least two people died as a result of the severe weather.

In Iowa, a 63-year-old man who was biking on a trail was struck and killed by a falling tree, according to the Linn County sheriff’s office. The man, Thomas Rowland, of Solon, Iowa, “sustained severe injuries that ultimately took his life at the scene,” the sheriff’s office said.

The Fort Wayne Fire Department in Indiana found a 73-year-old woman clutching a 5-year-old in an overturned mobile home, Deputy Chief Adam O’Connor said. She died at a hospital, he said, but the child was unharmed.

In Cedar Rapids, “there wasn’t a property that was without damage of some sort,” Ms. Huilman said.

Because damage from the storm made her house unsafe to live in, she and her 3-year-old daughter have been staying this week at her parents’ home in Cedar Rapids, where neighbors gathered to create a schedule for use of the single generator on the block. Residents had to drive 45 miles out of the city to get gasoline for generators, she said.

“That moment — we were feeling like there was nobody coming to help,” she said of the neighborhood meeting, where extension cords were deployed from the generator and a plan was crafted to check on older neighbors.

School districts, including Clinton Community School District in eastern Iowa, are delaying the school year until power is restored and buildings are repaired. Gary DeLacy, the superintendent, said many families were without power and internet access so they had relied on word of mouth to communicate the delay.

Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa said on Thursday that she had “issued disaster proclamations for 23 counties so far following Monday’s severe weather.”

“Residents of those counties may be eligible for assistance for things like replacement of food and temporary housing,” she said on a Facebook post that was accompanied by a map with the affected counties highlighted.

The derecho caused extensive damage in Iowa, where the storm’s devastating winds not only flattened crops in the field but toppled silos, ruining harvested crops.

“There are 30.6 million acres of farmland in Iowa,” including row crops, livestock pastures and buildings, Keely Coppess, a spokeswoman for the State Agriculture Department, said in an email. “It’s possible up to 10 million acres of farmland suffered damage. We’ll have a better idea of how many corn acres were damaged in the next week or so.”

She added that “the department estimates hundreds of millions of bushels of commercial storage and tens of millions of bushels of on-farm storage bins were lost to the derecho.”

Fields once full of towering stalks of corn now “look like pavement,” said Michael Ciabatti, a resident of Cedar Rapids.

“The stalks are just flat to the ground,” he said. “I don’t see how some farms are going to recover from losing an entire summer’s harvest.”

With communities already hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, recovery efforts were further complicated by the continued absence of power. Iowa has 50,167 confirmed virus cases, according to a New York Times analysis.

“Hotels are also without power, severely limiting places of refuge” for Cedar Rapids residents, Mr. Ciabatti said. “This is now 96 hours we’ve gone without power, and cell service is poor almost every hour of the day,” he said.

A derecho is a line of widespread intense storms that can move rapidly across the landscape. Its potent winds can be as destructive as tornadoes, but the winds move in a straight line instead of the tornado’s circular patterns. The Spanish word “derecho” can be translated as “straight ahead,” like the winds.

Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University, said derechos were no strangers to the Midwest, including Northern Illinois, where he lost trees in his own yard.

“In the Midwest, we don’t get hurricanes,” he said. “We get these.” He compared the experience of living through a derecho to “10 to 15 minutes of a Category 1 hurricane.”

Is there a relationship between climate change and derechos? Climate scientists have found links between a warming world and many aspects of extreme weather, especially in the frequency of heavy downpours and the resulting flooding. But derechos may be a different matter.

“We don’t have a good answer yet,” Dr. Gensini said; he is working on a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the question. Tying any individual storm to climate change is the work of those in the field of attribution science, he noted, which takes time after any given event.

Patrick Marsh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, said that “from a theoretical point of view, you could make the argument that a warmer world is more moist, and you’d have more energy for thunderstorms.” But derechos are so complex that the impact of climate change on the various factors is hard to predict, and some elements that go into creating a derecho might be inhibited rather than enhanced.

In Cedar Rapids, both Mr. Ciabatti and Ms. Huilman noted the attention the city and state had drawn during the presidential primaries and the relative silence from national politicians now.

Vice President Mike Pence did happen to be in Des Moines on Thursday for events at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. While in the state, he met with a group of farmers to hear about damage to their farms and property.

Marie Fazio contributed reporting.


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