CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA – After a week sleeping outside on a lawn chair, Jason Lincoln wasn’t impressed by President Donald Trump’s hourlong visit last week, eight days after the worst disaster ever to hit this eastern Iowa city. Stopping in on a campaign swing, Trump got a 20-minute briefing from Iowa officials and never left the airport.
“He doesn’t know anything about our state,” Lincoln said. “He never did a drive-through or a flyover. He went straight to Yuma, Ariz., to campaign.”
The performance of Gov. Kim Reynolds didn’t fare any better, in the judgment of Dave Ellingrod.
“They don’t care. It’s pretty obvious,” Ellingrod said, taking a break and cracking a beer as friends helped him collect belongings from his damaged apartment. “She listens to Trump and does whatever he tells her.” Reynolds’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Iowa’s second-largest city, with a population of more than 130,000, was devastated Aug. 10 by a rare derecho, a straight-line windstorm that cut a 40-mile swath through the heart of the state with winds of up to 112 mph. The storm killed three people and injured more than 60.
The entire city lost power and cell service for days. Nearly every home and business suffered damage; more than 1,000 homes were destroyed and another 4,000 significantly damaged. Iowa homes, farms and businesses suffered an estimated loss of $4 billion.
Relief efforts were hampered by the loss of communications and power, as well as the dangers posed by downed power lines and impassable streets. Still, across the region, residents said the official response to the disaster has been too little, too late.
“Nobody has seen the mayor. He’s disappeared,” said Kendra Davidson,
“The government is too slow,” said Amanda Cooley, heading to a friend’s home to help clear debris. “It’s the community who is responding. It’s the people from other states [who have come to help] — that’s the only reason anything’s getting done.”
Indeed, residents got to work immediately after the storm with chain saws, trucks, lawn tractors and every tool they could find, hacking their way out of a chaotic mess of downed trees. Everywhere in the city, logs and brush are stacked on the curb faster than trucks can haul them away.
“When this happens, we don’t wait for people to help us,” said Steve O’Konek, emergency services coordinator for Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids. “We help ourselves and then we help our neighbors. I saw people with chain saws cutting trees in the middle of the street.
“We got whacked, so let’s stand up and fight back.”
Residents are struggling with basic necessities. Many are sleeping outside and even cooking over campfires. That’s what Felicia McKinney did while she was without power for a week. “I was just cooking with sticks I gathered out here,” she said. “I made a pot of chicken and rice.”
McKinney also criticized the governor’s slow response to the disaster and said she plans to go live with relatives in Texas.
The situation is complicated even further by the challenges of dealing with insurance claims and trying to find work crews to repair homes and remove trees. Many residents said that unscrupulous contractors have flocked to the city, gouging desperate residents with exorbitant prices.
Even a reputable contractor might charge several thousand dollars to remove a large tree, and many homeowners could be facing tree-removal bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, even as Trump touted his signing of a disaster declaration, he overstated his case.
“Just approved (and fast) the FULL Emergency Declaration for the Great State of Iowa,” the president tweeted Monday. In fact, the president’s declaration covered only about $45 million for aid to repair government facilities and utilities. The approved declaration does not cover aid to businesses, farmers and homeowners.
However, as further damage assessments are completed, Iowa officials expect that those additional relief funds will eventually be approved.
“I believe the majority of everything is moving forward,” Joyce Flinn, director of Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said Friday. The official response has been complicated by the many different agencies involved, she said.
The aid that the state has requested will come from several agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it will be administered in many cases by state and local officials.
The multiple pools of relief dollars could mean headaches for residents trying to figure out what assistance they may be eligible for, although state and federal organizations are setting up help centers to assist residents with paperwork and questions.
Flinn added that Iowa’s disaster relief system is structured to work from the bottom up. County officials are responsible for assessing their needs and asking the state for help, she said. State officials monitored the situation but had to wait for local requests to come in, which was made difficult by the communications issues.
And once the state did get involved, she said, its priority was clearing major roadways so that law enforcement, medical and utility workers could get through.
But people sleeping outside and cooking with sticks weren’t necessarily interested in the workings of interagency protocol.
“We’re used to tornadoes, which is the finger of God,” said Nicholas Bowers, who lives in nearby Marion, Iowa.
“This was more like the hand of God.”