By Stacey Egger
On Monday, Aug. 10, a massive “derecho” wind storm tore through the Midwest, hitting thousands of square miles with winds of up to 112 mph. The storm took down trees and power lines, leveled corn crops, and cut off power and phone signal throughout a massive region spanning much of Iowa, and parts of Nebraska and Illinois.
The Rev. Andy Wright, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Keystone, Iowa, had walked from the church to the parsonage next door to eat lunch early Monday afternoon. Half an hour later, part of the sanctuary roof was gone.
“The tornado sirens went off, so we went down into the basement of the parsonage. You could hear the wind and things just breaking, all around you, for about 20 to 30 minutes straight. At first we thought a tornado was hitting. But it was not until the storm was starting to dissipate that I looked outside, and saw trees down all around our street, and then I looked back at the church, and my mouth just dropped open.”
Unlike a tornado, the hurricane-force winds that hit Keystone did not just devastate a mile-wide path, but a swath of the Midwest that stretched for miles and miles in every direction. In an area of hundreds of miles through eastern Iowa, a majority of standing trees were damaged in some way. Many homes were hit by trees or sustained wind damage. Central Lutheran School in Newhall, Iowa, lost a portion of its ceiling and roof, part of which crashed through the wall of a neighboring house. Power and phone signal were cut off to the whole region for over a week, including major cities such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Quad Cities.
“We don’t know of any LCMS [Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod] churches in the area of Cedar Rapids that have power,” said Jason Koepnick, Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT) chainsaw coordinator for the LCMS Iowa District East (IDE) on Wednesday afternoon. “I would say there are probably no trees left unharmed in the Linn County area. … It is devastation everywhere. Power lines are down all over town. Most of the power poles are cracked, bent or on the ground.”
The power outages have caused not only communication blackouts, but food struggles for many of the affected residents, Koepnick said.
“The power has been off long enough that the food in the refrigerators has spoiled, and there’s very little food on the grocery store shelves, simply because a lot of the grocery stores didn’t have backup generators.”
As of Aug. 17, a week later, power in parts of those cities and most of the affected rural areas had not returned.
‘It’s just gone’
St. John’s and Central Lutheran sustained damage that will need repairs, as did many other homes and businesses. One elderly member of St. John’s completely lost her home’s roof, which caved in on the kitchen and the living room, though she was unharmed.
But within St. John’s predominantly farming congregation, and in so many rural communities across Iowa, many lost much more.
“I have countless members who have basically lost everything on their farm,” said Wright. “They’ve lost their equipment, they’ve lost their grain bins, they’ve lost machine sheds, they’ve lost barns. … And these fields that you drive by, you could not have driven on them and made them flatter — they’re just flat, the corn is completely flattened. And you’ll see fields of that, along with pieces of people’s farm equipment, people’s barns, silos, just laying out twisted in the middle of a field.”
Things look similar in the semi-rural congregations Rothchild serves as a vacancy pastor, St. Mark’s Lutheran in Garrison, and Zion Lutheran in Shellsburg.
“One of my members showed me where somebody else’s grain bin had come through a field, hit against their house, knocked out the attic windows, and then flew around the house, and ended up in their back yard. The rural area is very devastated,” Rothchild said.
“I don’t think I went by a place out in the country that didn’t have some damage, it was just a matter of how much. And given the fact that the price of corn has not been good for six or seven years, it was already a struggling farm economy for sure.”
The impact on these farmers is greater than just economic loss and the daunting prospect of rebuilding, Wright said.
“Dozens upon dozens of people [in my congregation], in a span of 20 to 30 minutes, everything that they’ve worked for for generations is gone. Thankfully most of them still have their houses, but most of the farms, it’s just — it’s gone.
“This is the stuff that they built with their hands, or they’re looking at things that their grandparents built and handed down to them, who had nothing and built everything around them. … So while they might have insurance on some of the crops and things like that, just to see that gone in an instant, what took generations to build — people are pretty shaken up and devastated by that,” he said.
LERT teams work to rebuild lives
On Thursday morning, the Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response, traveled to the affected area and met with local LCMS disaster response coordinators to help organize response plans.
Due to the widespread impact of the derecho, outside help will be particularly crucial. After a localized event like a tornado, neighboring towns can come together to aid the affected areas. But there is not a town or even a property in the path of the derecho that was not affected in some way.
“The whole middle belt of the district was hit,” said the Rev. Dr. Brian Saunders, president of the Iowa District East. “I’ve been 50 miles east, west, north and south, visiting our churches and pastors and schools. … Dealing with the COVID situation, this storm — it’s a test to our resolve.”
LCMS LERT teams, which undergo chainsaw training, have been well-equipped to respond to the need of clearing countless downed trees from properties.
“If we had a thousand chainsaws, they could be kept busy,” said the Rev. Dean Rothchild, the IDE disaster response coordinator, who has been helping to coordinate the response while dealing with his own home, which was hit by a falling tree and has a hole through the living room roof.
IDE LERT teams were on the ground doing emergency chainsaw work within an hour of the storm blowing through the Cedar Rapids area. Plans are underway for LERT teams and other volunteers from the Kansas, Missouri and Southern districts to respond as well.
LCMS Disaster Response will fund the lodging for these volunteers at Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca near Solon, Iowa, and has provided funding for chainsaws, generators and other necessary gear and equipment. IDE will be able to cover affected LCMS congregations’ insurance deductibles with funds left over from the 2008 Iowa flood disaster response.
“The collaborative Synod disaster response to the catastrophic damage in Iowa is wonderful to see,” said Johnson.
“LCMS Disaster Response, district leadership, Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca, LCMS congregations, Lutheran schools, Iowa LERT teams and chainsaw teams from multiple other districts are all working together to help the Iowans in the name of Christ as they are trying to rebuild their lives. We are helping an elderly family that was given a job estimate of over $18,000 for tree removal. We are able to do all of this work free of charge to the people we serve.”
‘The promises of Christ ring true’
Monday’s derecho and the ensuing power outages have added stress and strain to communities already affected economically and otherwise by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, Wright said, these losses have not caused the members of St. John’s to despair.
As soon as the storm had passed through Keystone — although power and phone lines were completely out — Wright said that he was able to walk to many of his members’ homes in their small community and check in with them in person.
“A lot of the members have been talking about how we see this driving us to Christ, to cling to His promises, especially this year with all this uncertainty. So it’s been actually a really wonderful thing to see, just that groundedness of people not wanting to quickly doubt God, but rather asking, ‘How can we see Christ in this, pastor? And how can we help each other?’”
And those in the church, Wright pointed out, have the answers to these questions, even in moments when they have lost so much.
“The promises of Christ ring true during this time. … Even as we see things laying around us, or even our church building with the roof ripped off, we know that God is our refuge and strength, and our ever-present help in trouble. And when you lose all these things that you know and love, it drives you to the cross, and to our Lord who has suffered in our place. And to see people confess that, as they’re picking up pieces to their homes — we give thanks to God, and we bear one another’s burdens as brothers and sisters in Christ — that’s been wonderful to see in the midst of all of this destruction.”
To support the continued work of LCMS Disaster Response, please consider donating:
- Online at lcms.org/give/disaster.
- Via text (send keyword LCMSDISASTERS to 41444).
- By phone at 888-930-4438, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CST.
- By check (make payable to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and write “for disaster response” on the memo line.)
Watch this video with more information about the derecho in Iowa and its impact.
Posted Aug. 14, 2020/Updated Aug. 18, 2020