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Derecho: A word I never knew existed but now will never forget

Amy Steinback
Hurricane wind speeds mangled and toppled these statuesque Harvestore silos in Iowa.

My husband Jeff, and I were both raised in rural southwest Wisconsin. We both experienced growing up on the farm and learned the value of a good work ethic at a young age which has served us well. We left Wisconsin 12 years ago to move to Belle Plaine, Iowa, to place us closer to Jeff’s job within the seed corn industry.

Fast forward to Monday August 10. I received a message from work alerting us of a powerful storm coming into the area. No other alerts came through so I continued on with my day not knowing what was yet to come. I was home when the wind picked up and headed for the basement. We soon lost power. The storm was called a derecho, a word I never knew existed but now I will never forget. The wind howled and sound of rattling and banging was relentless. The damage that occurred surpassed anything I could ever imagine.

We live south of Belle Plaine and after the wind died down my daughter and I went into town to get ice, water and a few other necessities. That drive into town set off the survival mode our family would soon thrive on. At the local gas station, employees wrote down what we bought and asked us the price if they did not know.  Gas was unavailable and cash was the only payment taken.

Downed power lines and trees literally lined every street making them impassable and unsafe. At this point I still did not realize the magnitude of this storm. My husband was traveling to one of the sites he oversees and was able to listen to the radio and soon understood what we were up against.

Cell phone reception was very limited at home and no cell phone reception was available within the city limits of Belle Plaine. No land lines, no internet or 911 emergency service. 

We had just moved our son to Cedar Rapids for college and I could not reach him. He didn’t even have a flashlight other than his phone. All of our electronics we rely on for everything were of no use. I just wanted to know if he was safe!

By that evening Jeff was already surveying the damage at our house. I was so thankful he is handy and learned many things over the years growing up on the farm. He fixed what he could and the clean up of debris began right away.

Powerful winds from the Aug. 11 derecho flattens millions and millions of acres of farm fields across the Midwest.

When service allowed, we made phone calls to family back in Wisconsin asking if anyone had a generator to keep our refrigerator and freezer going. When we were able, we searched the internet from inside our vehicle where we also charged our phones. We knew a shipment of generators would be available at 6 am Tuesday morning in Coralville – 44 miles away. We woke up at 4:30 am and headed out not knowing if we would have enough fuel to get back home if we couldn't fill up there. With no communication, no radio or television at home, we loaded our gas cans and headed out only to find around 150 people already in line. A sense of hopelessness came over us. It was like Black Friday but it was far from getting a great deal; it was about keeping our food from spoiling and basic functioning. 

Luckily, our phone calls made on Monday evening to family back in Wisconsin turned up a generator. So we headed north to meet up in Cascade. As we traveled we witnessed countless downed powerlines, trees literally snapped in half, corn bins littering fields, corn destroyed and mangled roofs everywhere. A feeling of being overwhelmed ran through me. 

Communication with our son was limited but we at least learned he was safe. The line up at a gas station in Anamosa was 60 cars plus long as we drove by on Highway 151 around 7 am. Fortunately the power was back on in Cascade so we picked up shingles and fascia as we knew supplies around us would be limited. A moment of relief surged through us as we met Jeff’s parents who had our new lifeline – a generator.  We filled up our gas cans and headed home feeling thankful.

The amount of acreage impacted by the derecho across Iowa was unbelievable. To witness a power outage spanning from Ames where my niece lives to parts of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and beyond seemed inconceivable. My niece could not get to us because her car was low on gas and finding fuel in the entire city of Ames – a city of 67,000 – was futile. We now had gas but how long would it last?

A caravan of Alliant Energy trucks from Wisconsin head to Iowa to help restore power.

Then we saw it – a caravan of seven Alliant Energy service trucks ahead of us hailing from Baraboo and Rio, Wisconsin. A huge sense of pride and relief washed over me. Our beloved state was coming to the rescue. It may have been only seven trucks but to us it meant so much more.

By Wednesday gas continued to be in high demand. Motorists waiting 30 or more minutes in line, hoping their vehicles wouldn't run out by the time they made it to the pump. I have never experienced this and hope I never have to again. I work for a local Hospice and have to travel to see my patients. As I make my visits, I nervously hope the area I go to has gas available.

Ice, chainsaws, and generators are nowhere to be found. There are so many people without—without power, a roof, their livelihood and hope. An estimated 550,000 people were without power and 10 million acres of cropland were impacted from the wrath of the derecho. 10 Million! The financial impact could potentially bankrupt the farmer without the proper crop insurance. Farmers were already dealing with low commodity prices before the storm. With little to no crop the income may not cover the inputs that have already been invested. My heart goes out to all impacted.

As the days moved on it wasn't until Friday when just two gas stations in town opened, cell phone service improved, a discount store reopened (requiring cash only payments) and very limited lighting. A very small portion of town had power restored. It's an improvement but we still have a lot to do.

As I am writing this, we still have no power but are hoping to get it early this week. We have helped others clear trees from homes, barns, and yards. My daughter volunteers daily at the community center making meals for strangers and offering her incredible smile which was hidden by her mask. I have offered to help with laundry as we move our extension cords around the house powering what we need at the time. Everything takes twice as long if you can do it at all. My options for cooking are grilling, grilling or grilling. 

Out of every crisis there is something to learn. We learn how good it feels to help others. We learn family is everything and your support system. And we extend a thank you to all the lineman and linewomen from Wisconsin and other surrounding states and their families for sacrificing so much to restore our energy. 

Just as the tourist destination The Sunflower Experience (a field of sunflowers just north of Belle Plaine off of Highway 30) gives joy and hope to others, so does the outpouring of help from others. Unfortunately this field of sunflowers was flattened by the storm. Like sunflowers that turn to the sun for energy, we thank Wisconsin for being our sunshine and giving us hope in our time of darkness.

Wisconsin natives Jeff and Amy Steinback are hard-pressed to describe the devastation wrought by the recent derecho that pummeled 10 million acres of crops across central Iowa and beyond and destroyed homes, buildings and trees.

Amy Steinback and her husband, Jeff Steinback, are Wisconsin natives and now live in Belle Plaine, Iowa