Hannah Scates Kettler and her husband dreamed of settling down in a rural area.
Both were archaeologists. Both had deep family ties to plants and gardening.
So this year, after a lot of “soul searching,” Kettler and her husband decided to open and launch “Minerva’s Meadow,” a 10-acre cut-flower farm in State Center that could someday grow into an educational space and an events venue. They decided to launch in March.
Then COVID-19 happened.
“We were like, ‘Good timing,’” Kettler said. “That’s when things started shutting down.”
While they downsized their operations, the farm was still up and running. They planted sunflowers, lavender and dahlias. Dreams of selling goods at the farmers’ market and other events were put on hold, but there were still opportunities to plant.
The farm’s first dahlia bloomed on Aug. 10, the day the derecho hit.
For 40 minutes, the storm heaved a torrential downpour of rain on their property while gusting winds ripped their young crops from their roots. Heavy trees and large branches came crashing down on their farm.
“None of us have lived through anything like that before,” Kettler said.
The sunflowers she cultivated were gone. The flowers that she initially dreamed of planting and selling the farmers’ markets will have to wait. She’ll see if signs of life sprout up next year.
As a new business owner, she expected she’d have to operate for three years before things came to fruition. Now, she expects it will take five.
For Iowans like Kettler, while the derecho suddenly swept in and left in just 30 minutes, the lasting effects of the storm will result in years of recovery.
Housing, debris cleanup are longest-lasting challenges from derecho
The derecho swept across Iowa with little warning on Aug. 10. Winds of up to 120 mph destroyed at least one-third of the state’s corn crop, killed three Iowans and caused extensive damage to homes and businesses.
Communities dealing with heavy damage are finishing up the most immediate recovery needs, such as ensuring everyone has shelter or short-term housing.
Once those basic needs are met, then they can focus fully on the recovery effort, said Dennis Harper, disaster recovery chief for Iowa Homeland Security. “We’re almost at the end of that process,” he said.
There are two long-term challenges for counties that are recovering from the derecho: housing and debris cleanup, Harper said.
One of the longest recovery efforts will be constructing enough low to middle-income homes for people to live in again, he said. It’s still unknown how many houses are uninhabitable in Iowa following the derecho, but the state already had a shortage of affordable housing. To rebuild neighborhoods, it can take one to three-and-a-half years for a city to work with a developer to plan and construct new homes.
The other problem is people who lived in low- to middle-income houses that are damaged may be underinsured or lack any insurance at all. That can make it more difficult to find shelter and do the repairs to make a home habitable again.
“If we were a state where there was a ton of low- to middle-income housing, it wouldn’t be so challenging,” Harper said. “But prior to the event, there was already a shortage of it.”
The other issue is debris recovery.
While insurance can cover a lot of the structural debris, dealing with “green debris” like fallen trees can be an issue. Many homes and neighborhoods have large piles that will need to be ground down or transported to the landfill. While there are holding areas for debris in some cities, it may take six months before communities are finished with it.
“This is the unique challenge for this particular wind event, since I’ve been around,” Harper said. It covered such a large area of the state, for example, all of Linn County was impacted. The debris streams and volume are high.”
Residents of each county will have their own decisions to make on how recovery should go and what their community should look like post-recovery.
One example is the 2008 Parkersburg tornado that devastated the southern portion of the rural Iowa town, Harper said. The EF5 tornado tore through town, sending 70 people to hospitals and killing nine others in the area. More than 400 homes suffered structural damage.
Throughout their reconstruction, Parkersburg officials focused on the opportunity to reinvent the community. Residents went through their insurance companies to pick up debris and rebuild their homes. City officials encouraged homeowners to stick with the town, so businesses would remain.
Parkersburg now resembles a city like Waukee more than a small town, Harper said.
“If you knew it before and knew it after, it doesn’t look the same,” Harper said.
Homes, businesses expect recovery to last at least year
It was the first time Darcie Torres was ever afraid of a storm.
While Torres, 50, was working from home, her mother called and warned there was going to be a serious storm about 25 minutes before the derecho hit.
“I didn’t necessarily take that seriously,” Torres she said.
Her husband called five minutes later with the same warning. But it wasn’t until right before the storm hit that she said she felt there was something “different.”
After rounding up her four dogs and going into her back room, she waited out the derecho as she heard trees in her neighborhood come crashing down.
“I actually expected my house to come down on us,” Torres said.
A portion of her lower roof will need to be rebuilt. A tree punched and caused interior damage. Damage in the attic became a funnel for water to come through, while her car also sustained dents and paint damage.
Because the power was out, she lost about $700 in food from her freezer.
Torres expects she’ll have to pay her $1,000 deductible but she’s unsure what insurance will cover, particularly for the trees that dropped that didn’t land on a structure.
She’s still waiting for someone from her insurance company to come out and assess the damage.
“There’s a lot of little stuff you know insurance isn’t going to get,” Torres said.
She looked for help through Iowa’s Individual Disaster Aid, but she did not qualify based on income. Because her home is still habitable, though damaged, she doesn’t expect to receive aid from FEMA either.
Property owners resort to raising donations online
Torres she expects to be dealing with the financial implications of the derecho well through the spring. A GoFundMe online fundraiser she started was able to pay for an electrician to come out, but she said her savings may never fully recover.
Still, after seeing the storm damage around her neighborhood, Torres said she feels lucky.
“I actually felt amazed,” Torres said. “I actually felt grateful because being surrounded by trees, it could have been so much worse.”
At Minerva’s Meadow, while Kettler’s insurance company hasn’t assessed the damage yet, she expects it to be tens of thousands of dollars.
One of the structures they intended to use as a studio space was damaged. The flowers she planted were torn up.
“It definitely set us back not just one year, but two,” Kettler said.
Still, even with the destruction to her new business, Kettler said she’s been heartened by the help she’s received along the way. The money raised on a GoFundMe helped her purchase a chainsaw and a generator after she went without power for five days. A local farm in Des Moines also donated waterproof tarps to prevent further storm damage.
When the spring rolls around again, she hopes that some of the plants she put in the earth this year will decide to sprout back up.
“None of us have lived through anything like that before,” Kettler said. “We’ve made some great friends and built some community because of all of this, which in some ways was unexpected, but in other ways encouraging and heartening.”