Scott Eckman spent much of last week driving through the heart of Iowa. He expected to see severe damage after the devastating derecho of Aug. 10.
Still, he struggled to believe what he saw.
Ten days ago, few in America had heard of a derecho. Now, there’s a new weather threat to keep us awake on stormy nights. A derecho is a line of intense, wide and rapidly moving windstorms that travel great distance to deliver great devastation.
President Donald Trump recently announced, using his words, “a surprise visit” to Iowa. He will arrive Tuesday to see a ransacked state packed with resilient residents.
Eckman is one of them. I’ve known Scott more than 40 years. He’s a clear-talking Midwesterner who seldom deals in exclamation marks. But he was shaken by the derecho that shook — often literally — his state.
Eckman saw semis that had been tossed off the interstate by winds that raced above 100 miles per hour.
He saw flattened silos, one after another. Silos that had been full of grain were spared the worst damage. Empty silos were pulverized.
He drove past a storage unit that also served as a destination for unused travel trailers. The trailers, he said, were spread around like Yahtzee dice. The doors of storage units had been torn off.
“Everybody’s stuff was everywhere for three square miles,” he said.
Eckman has lived in Iowa nearly 30 years. He’s seen floods. He’s worried about tornados. He’s never seen anything deliver the widespread ruination of this derecho.
He saw cornfields with stalks standing tall and perfect while a few hundred yards away fields were “flat like someone had taken a lawn mower and chopped all of it off at the ground. It was the weirdest thing.”
Days after his drives, he’s still troubled by those fields, some saved, some devastated.
“The winds decided,” he said.
If you’re a control freak in Iowa, 2020 is not your year. COVID-19 has altered virtually every corner of life as we once knew it and now you take a chance of neighbors sifting through the scattered contents of your storage unit.
The derecho made an astounding impact in its path, which was as wide as 100 miles. Iowa boasts, according to the state agriculture department, 30.6 million acres of farmland. As many as 14 million were damaged by the derecho. Between 300,000 and 400,000 residents of Illinois and Iowa lost power after the storm and, remember, the derecho did much of its damage in sparsely populated prairieland.
When Eckman is in Cedar Rapids, he can't watch TV news. He has no cell service. He’s come to realize his cell phone seems almost as essential to his life as electricity or water.
But it’s not all terrifying news. In these disasters, it never is. One of Eckman’s longtime friends called from Oklahoma after the storm and offered to drive a generator to his home.
Eckman has seen how his neighbors work to help each other. If one Cedar Rapids neighbor owns a chain saw, he said, it serves the entire neighborhood.
Leaders of Cedar Rapids have been quick and imaginative. Snowplows were used to clear debris, mostly from trees, on the streets. City officials announced they are planning to collect debris until Christmas, at least. Much of the debris will be dumped on the edge of the Cedar River.
On Aug. 10, Eckman was at his home in Cedar Rapids eating lunch when he heard a windstorm was on its way. He was concerned, but not overwhelmed by worry.
He endured a storm like no other. “It lasted forever,” he said. “It just went on and on.”
When the derecho finally departed, Eckman walked into his backyard, where two feet of branches, twigs and leaves awaited him.
It looked, he said, as if it had rained small pieces of wood for an hour.