By Katharine Carlson
It was barely covered by national media and federal funds were slow in coming, but Iowans, already battered by a pandemic that brought on a steep economic recession and an abrupt shift in business practices, mostly got right back to work after the country’s third worst natural disaster of 2020.
On Aug. 10, 2020, hurricane-force winds up to 140 mph marauded though a swath of Iowa, including a major portion of the Corridor, leaving $11 billion in damages, downed power lines, a communications breakdown, and hundreds of thousands of insurance claims in its wake.
For this special issue, we asked readers to give the perspectives downed communications didn’t allow, hoping to offer a small window into the region’s resiliency. We heard from family-owned and small businesses, manufacturers, a hospital and one of the region’s most recognizable tourist attractions.
“It’s been a year—and I’ll let you fill in whatever adjective you want,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her recent Condition of the State address, in words that resonate for many Iowans. “We’ve been beaten and battered in about every way imaginable and some unimaginable. But together, we’ve met every challenge with bravery and outright grit.”
Read on for a half dozen such gritty stories from the Corridor, six months after the devastation.
‘Sometimes, God whispers’
Absolutely Clean, formerly at 712 J Ave. NE, now at 224 Collins Road NE, Cedar Rapids
Absolutely Clean Founder and CEO Stephanie Nesseth had a feeling in the days leading up to Aug. 10, and it wasn’t a good one. Her office staff and team of cleaners, many of them parents, were exhausted after months of the pandemic – dealing with stringent hygiene precautions, dealing with kids and spouses suddenly at home, dealing with the stress of sudden isolation.
Ms. Nesseth, on a whim and “a gut feeling,” decided late the week before to give the entire company a three-day weekend, a bonus Monday off.
It was a last-minute decision that might have saved lives. At the very moment the derecho struck, office staff would have been working upstairs where the company’s former J Avenue location’s roof was swiftly sheared off in hurricane-force winds, she said. Meanwhile, “literally every single one of my [cleaning] team members would have been on the road.”
“I get chills thinking about it,” said Ms. Nesseth, who was only able to retrieve client keys, a computer used for accounting and a framed jacket belonging to a former employee who died of cancer before being banished from the totaled building forever after battling her way there from her tree-strewn neighborhood. “Sometimes, God whispers.”
With Absolutely Clean’s former offices declared unsafe, the business pivoted almost immediately to a 100% remote operation, something it had some experience with already given pandemic precautions. Office and managerial employees took up residence at the home of the only staffer with power and internet access, and thanks to cloud-based software, the company was back in business within four days. Communications were frayed in the early days, and cleaners often used clients’ equipment instead of their own, but “the derecho has probably been the biggest catalyst to our rebuilding from the pandemic.”
Absolutely Clean opened new offices on Collins Road NE in October.
Rebuilding from Day 1
Rapids Foodservice Contract and Design, 6201 S. Gateway Dr., Marion
“The severe weather alarms only gave us a few minutes to prepare before this storm blew into town and upended our lives,” is how the Rapids Foodservice blog characterized the weather event that ripped off a chunk of roof, blew in windows and dock doors, overturned trailers in the parking lot and damaged interior office and warehouse space.
At one point, according to President Joe Schmitt, employees sheltered in the warehouse waiting out the storm were dodging pelting “rain coming in horizontal.” When it was all over, Rapids Foodservice had lost 25% of its roof, four overhead doors in its shipping and receiving area and multiple windows on the building’s west side.
Like most homes and businesses in the area, the company lost power and internet. In the immediate aftermath, the general destruction and inability to communicate with customers made it difficult to fulfill orders, but staff worked hard to clean up the warehouse and the company was able to resume on-site work a day and a half later, shipping out 45 orders on Wednesday, Aug. 12, and 87 orders the following day. By that Friday, Rapids Foodservice was working at 95% capacity in terms of order fulfillment.
Since then, the company has repaired its roof and made interior and cosmetic repairs, including rebuilding office space and reconfiguring a lower-level area to house commercial food service equipment and a supplies showroom.
“We have been rebuilding since Aug. 10 and are 98% complete on our rebuild of the space,” Mr. Schmitt said.
A changed landscape
Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr., Cedar Rapids
Already coping with ways to offer safe programming amid the pandemic, the bucolic Brucemore estate was forced to temporarily halt those efforts entirely when the derecho tore through the property, wreaking $2.5 million in damage.
In all, seven historic and three modern structures on the property took hits, according to Director of Community Engagement Tara Richards, as did outdoor statuary, a number of historic features and 26 acres of gardens, orchard, wooded areas and cultural landscape – including an astonishing 70% of the estate’s mature tree canopy.
“Efforts to repair the buildings, mitigate further risks to the historic structures, and to clear the estate of trees and debris are underway,” said Ms. Richards, adding that Brucemore plans to also begin a landscape design process guided by original early 20th century designs from nationally renowned landscape architect OC Simonds, with replanting efforts set to begin in 2022.
As one of the state’s top visitor attractions, donors have been generous in helping fill the gaps insurance won’t cover. Shortly after the storm, the Cedar Rapids Garden Club applied for a grant from the Garden Club of America on behalf of Brucemore, offering the successful $10,000 award to the nonprofit in December. That same month, Brucemore received a grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs thanks to CARES Act funding aimed at relief for Iowa’s arts and culture industry and announced it had surpassed its $5 million capital campaign goal, raising $5.19 million for reinvestment in the property’s structures and landscape, upgrading infrastructure and enhancing security.
Brucemore officials credited a surge in donations in the aftermath of the August storm.
“After seeing the extensive damage across the estate, many donors reached out and offered additional support,” said Executive Director David Janssen. “We designated these post-derecho gifts to landscape recovery efforts, which will be a major focus for Brucemore over the next few years.”
Losing a part of history
UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital, 1026 A Avenue NE, Cedar Rapids
The derecho was indiscriminate in its destruction, hitting homes, businesses, local landmarks and some of the region’s busiest hospitals alike.
Unity Point Health – St. Luke’s Hospital was socked with millions in damage and expenses during the storm, even as staff worked overtime to treat 1,092 storm-related injuries over a two-week period, the second-highest volume of patients ever after the 2008 flood, which shut down nearby Mercy Medical Center. According to Senior Marketing Communications Lead Sarah Corizzo, that all came as medical personnel operated without power for 33 hours, without access to medical records for 51 hours, and without communications and network connectivity for days.
Although loss of life was minimal given the brute force of the storm, damages were not. The hospital suffered an overall financial hit of nearly $2.7 million, including more than $400,000 in damage to the St. Luke’s Resource Center, a more than 100-year-old structure whose original wing was built in 1917 as the St. Luke’s Nursing Education Building. St. Luke’s School of Nursing graduated 2,524 students between 1892 and the last graduating class in 1987.
In 1986, the building was renamed St. Luke’s Resource Center. It had been used as office space for area non-profits and non-clinical departments of the hospital.
“Rather than reinvesting in this building, hospital officials made the difficult decision to demolish the building before the end of the year,” Ms. Corizzo wrote in an email.
Demolition of two of the building’s three wings, along with some of the floors on the top of the third wing, was completed this past fall, with some classrooms, auditorium, and a tunnel system to the main hospital buildings preserved.
The hospital’s hefty repair bill also included fixing damage at several UnityPoint clinics across Eastern Iowa.
‘We didn’t even pretend work was the most important thing’
Blue Grass Enterprises, 3965 C Avenue Ext, Alburnett
Blue Grass, a family-owned sod farm serving Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other parts of Eastern Iowa, sustained losses Business Manager Sarah Nolte could only characterize as “some pretty serious, pretty expensive clean up” when the derecho slammed all three buildings at its main location, causing the total collapse of a large machine shed filled with equipment, supplies, seeds, and a number of cars belonging to employees who had parked inside to shelter them from the storm.
The storm also took out the company’s center pivot irrigation system as 110 mph-plus winds blew a grain bin belonging to a neighbor a half mile away into a collision path with the expensive equipment, mangling it beyond recognition.
“What happened to us means the [damage amounts] had to have been staggering,” said Ms. Nolte. “I can’t even fathom the number and amount of insurance claims from this event.”
Ms. Nolte said it took between two and three weeks after the event to ramp back up to full operations. In the weeks and months since, Blue Grass has installed a new irrigation system, rebuilt its collapsed building and repaired or replaced most equipment, although there is still plenty of aesthetic work to complete through the winter.
But, she noted, last summer wasn’t the first time the company has been through a natural disaster, having suffered through multiple bouts of flooding at its former location in Palo. That experience helped Blue Grass remain sanguine and focused on the most important priority – employees, many of whom were dealing with devastated homes and businesses, lack of power and severely limited communications for days and even weeks.
“We knew what we needed to do and how to do it and I think we did everything as quickly as we could have,” Ms. Nolte said. “We didn’t even pretend work was the most important thing. Employees had almost carte blanche to go and do what they needed to do to take care of basics and put their houses in order. Who can work when you’re worried about your roof?”
Producing at 100% within two weeks
Apache Inc., 4805 Bowling St. SW, Cedar Rapids
About 140 employees were in the building Aug. 10 when the storm hit, according to Kyle Gingrich, vice president and general manager for Mi Conveyance Solutions-Apache Division. Thanks to regular storm drills, employees were moved to safety – and, when it was later discovered a three-inch gas main had been severed, swiftly removed from the building.
By the time it was all over, hurricane-force winds had torn a 30,000-square-foot portion of roof from the 200,000 square foot facility, exposing the company’s belt manufacturing processes and subjecting both upper- and lower-level offices to catastrophic water damage that displaced about 40 employees, who continued to work remotely.
Production at Apache, a division of Alabama-based Motion Industries, was shut down for the week after the derecho, with office and customer-facing functions briefly taken up by other Motion facilities across the U.S.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Gingrich said, “Our production capabilities were back up and running at 70% after one week, with nearly 100% of employees reporting to work, even though most still did not have power at their homes. The storm mitigation process started immediately, and we were back up to 100% operational with production processes after two weeks.”
In the past six months, Apache has nearly completed roof repairs and office reconstruction is 95% finished, which has allowed employees to return to the office as new space becomes available. Having to rebuild and remodel has offered a few advantages, according to Mr. Gingrich, who said the new, more open office area allows better team collaboration and amenities from state-of-the-art office furniture and equipment and an improved employee breakroom to two new fully-equipped training rooms.
“We have a resilient and committed group of employees,” he said.