Grassley op-ed: Historic derecho tests pandemic-weary Iowans
Sep 08, 2020
By Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa
In my years of farming and representing Iowans throughout the past half-century, I’ve never seen such widespread, catastrophic damage in our state. Uprooted and stripped century-old trees, mile after square mile of flattened cornfields and mangled grain bins from one county to the next looked like scenes from an apocalypse.
The National Weather Service reports the 40-mile-wide derecho that stormed across Iowa on Aug. 10 clocked 140 mph in Cedar Rapids. The hurricane-force winds appeared seemingly out of thin air, giving Iowans scant time to prepare. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were left without power, phone or internet service. Here in Cedar Rapids and other hard-hit communities, thousands of displaced residents needed medical care, shelter and food assistance.
Natural disasters aren’t unique to Iowa and they don’t discriminate based on ZIP code or party labels. It’s important that the Iowa congressional delegation work shoulder-to-shoulder to ensure Iowa receives all eligible federal emergency resources available under the law to help disaster-affected communities recover.
The last time I missed a Senate vote was when I toured flood damage in 1993 with President Bill Clinton. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, there’s no place for partisanship when Iowans are hungry, hurting, homeless and healing. Disaster relief efforts call for nonpartisanship. No matter who’s in the White House. Consider the years long bicameral, bipartisan effort by Iowa’s congressional delegation to secure federal funds to help Cedar Rapids build a flood control system following the 2008 historic flooding.
Once again, Cedar Rapids finds itself in the heart of yet another epic natural disaster. And this time, disaster struck during an unprecedented public health crisis that’s impacted recovery efforts.
That didn’t stop Gov. Kim Reynolds from deploying rapid outreach to conduct the damage assessments needed to request federal disaster assistance, estimated at nearly $4 billion so far.
Within hours of her request, President Donald Trump approved a Major Disaster Declaration. The very next day, the president visited Cedar Rapids to get firsthand reports about the damage, bringing the nation’s attention to the humanitarian disaster, catastrophic crop damage and urgent need for more help.
It’s unfortunate the Midwestern derecho doesn’t garner the national media coverage that two tropical storms in the Gulf Coast and wildfires in California receive, for example. Unlike President Trump, some people choose to believe America starts and stops along our coastlines. As a champion for Rural America, I’ll continue raising my voice and leveraging my leadership to ensure the heartland isn’t left behind.
Despite the pandemic, power outages and sparse national publicity, Iowans stepped up to do what Iowans do best: Roll up our sleeves, put one foot in front of the other and get to work. Countless examples of neighbor helping neighbor strengthens closely-knit communities and the social fabric of our state.
Volunteers operated chain saws every waking daylight hour to remove fallen trees blocking streets, barricading vehicles and smothering rooftops, including crews who heard about the derecho through word-of-mouth and social media. For example, Gideon Rescue Company, a disaster response team from Oklahoma, arrived in Belle Plaine to help strangers in need while local farmers brought tractors to town to help neighbors in need. Linesman and skilled tradespeople worked tirelessly to restore power and repair damages to houses and public infrastructure.
From stocking food pantries and diaper banks, Iowans donated ice, water and other essentials for distribution. Local businesses and nonprofits provided free meals, generators and places for displaced residents to cool off and charge cellphones. Sen. Ernst and I met this week here in Cedar Rapids with more than 20 nonprofits and learned about their remarkable grassroots efforts and ongoing needs to provide emergency and recovery assistance for local residents. By every measure, it’s been all hands on deck.
The road to recovery won’t end tomorrow, next month or even next year. Thankfully, President Trump’s swift Major Disaster Declaration opens the pipeline for hazard mitigation and public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to help repair infrastructure and continue debris removal. Residents in Linn County may register with FEMA and the Small Business Administration for disaster-related assistance. During his visit to Cedar Rapids, the president gave assurances additional counties that meet thresholds for individual disaster assistance would be approved. This week, an additional 10 counties received the green light so that eligible storm survivors in Benton, Boone, Cedar, Jasper, Marshall, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Story and Tama counties may apply for individual assistance.
Iowa farmers already struggling with COVID-19 related disruptions in the meat supply chain and biofuels market are now bracing for tough marketing decisions, limited grain storage and a difficult harvest. I led the charge for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to approve Gov. Reynolds’ request for a Secretarial Natural Disaster Designation. On Thursday, Sec. Perdue was in Iowa to survey damaged crop acres and designated 18 counties as primary natural disaster areas eligible for emergency assistance to help farmers sustain their operations.
When a hurricane-force derecho rips across Iowa from the Missouri to the Mississippi Rivers in the midst of a pandemic, it certainly ranks among the worst of times. Time and again, hardship brings out the best in Iowans. It also brings invisible wounds that shouldn’t be ignored along the road to recovery and healing. I’m glad Congress approved my bipartisan bill in July to improve access to mental health services in Rural America. Don’t hesitate to lean on family members and friends or seek professional support services to manage stress. Iowans may text TalkWithUs to 66746 or call the national disaster distress helpline (800) 985-5990 to talk to a trained crisis counselor.
Keep standing strong, Iowa. We’re in this together, every step of the way.
Chuck Grassley is a Republican representing Iowa in the U.S. Senate.