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‘Widespread destruction:’ Wisconsin assists storm-ravaged Iowa

Neighbors help to clean up a downed tree that smashed a pick-up truck and caused a house fire after a major storm, called a derecho, ripped through Iowa on Aug. 10. (Courtesy of Michelle Bennett)

Neighbors help to clean up a downed tree that smashed a pick-up truck and caused a house fire after a major storm, called a derecho, ripped through Iowa on Aug. 10. (Courtesy of Michelle Bennett)

Tiffany Engelhart’s SUV was packed floor-to-ceiling.

Inside, she carried her two sons, 13 and 6, along with enough electrical components to provide 50 homes with power after a rare and devastating storm called a derecho ripped through Iowa on Aug. 10, causing billions in damage.

Engelhart, whose partner, along with his brother, own Engelhart Electric of Madison, didn’t know how bad the storm had been until her friend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, shared photos of the damage on Facebook earlier this week. She’d heard — even a week after the storm — that crews were still struggling to find electrical components needed to restore power to homes.

“I saw pictures of the damage and said, ‘my gosh what do you need?” Engelhart said. “Two seconds later, they posted pictures of electrical parts.”

So she loaded up her SUV Wednesday and made the trek to Shullsberg, where she’ll drop off parts that will help residents plug back in.

Engelhart is among the more than 1,000 people from outside of Iowa who have stepped up to help the state recover from the storm. The unprecedented derecho mangled more than 8,200 homes and 13 million acres of corn — about a third of the state’s crop land — and left three dead.

By Tuesday night, Alliant Energy, which is leading the clean-up effort with MidAmerica Energy, said power had been restored to 86% of the customers who had been left without electricity after the storm.

Tony Bartels, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 975, in Madison, is helping to organize crews from Wisconsin that are helping restore power to places hit by the storm. For his members on the ground, the extent of the damage was reminiscent of natural disasters in coastal states such as Florida.

“I have, in my career, never seen this many people sent to respond to a storm,” he said.

But despite the progress, it could be several more days before crews are able to restore power to everyone harmed by the storm. The broader clean-up effort will take months, or even years, said Dustin Stumma, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 204, which is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. By Monday, more than 30,000 customers in Cedar Rapids were still without power.

Stumma said about 1,500 electrical linemen from out of state have traveled to Iowa to help bring homes and business back on-line. Also, about 150 electricians, linemen and other tradespeople have traveled from Wisconsin to help out.

After repairing much of the region’s major power infrastructure, Stumma said crews are gearing up to restore electricity to individual homes and businesses that are still without power.

“We’ve’ never seen such widespread destruction like this,” Stumma said. “We’re used to tornadoes. They may touch down in a community, and that’s about it. Not something that stretches more than half the state.”

Effort to restore power

David de Leon, president of Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin operations, said in an interview Wednesday the derecho that tore through Iowa last week and left more than 250,000 customers without power was unprecedented. The storm, which packed the power of a category 3 hurricane, caught everyone by surprise, he said.

“This was such a wide path for a long stretch of Iowa, with no warning,” he said. “We couldn’t even prepare for something like this.”

Forecasters had predicted thunderstorms before the storm struck, and tornado sirens blared in some places 20 minutes before the derecho arrived. But there was little other sign the derecho would bring so much damage.

Alliant spokeswoman Cindy Tomlinson said crews have replaced more than 3,000 downed or damaged electrical poles — a task that would typically take 10 months.

Although de Leon said the utility had repaired about 90% of the damage from the storm by Wednesday, crews were beginning the arduous task of restoring power to individual homes and businesses.

De Leon said the utility was fortunate in being able to procure materials to repair its infrastructure, but some customers may still be struggling to find electrial components needed to connect to the grid. Beyond that, there was also a need for roofing materials, siding, windows and other components destroyed by the storm.

“As we get closer to the end, it gets more difficult at times,” he said. “We go from starting big and narrowing it down to smaller areas. and those areas are getting a little bit more challenging.”

Long cleanup ahead

Michelle Bennett, of Solon, Iowa, was at a Mexican restaurant near her home when the power inside the building went out.

She initially assumed contractors working on the building had cut it. The contractors, however, told patrons that a big storm was brewing outside. Bennett ran to her car and drove home. Five minutes after she and her son had taken shelter in the basement of her home, she heard the winds begin to rip debris across the yard.

Bennett didn’t realize the extent of the damage until she began driving around after the hour-long storm abated.

“Since we’ve never experienced a storm like this before, we didn’t know what to expect,” Bennett said. “I don’t think any of us would think it affected the entire area. Our neighborhood’s trash. This isn’t isolated, this is everywhere.”

In the days after the storm, Bennett, through the Iowa Association of Realtors, has been promoting a relief fund a colleague had set up for those affected by the damage. She’s also joined the “chainsaw gangs” that have scoured neighborhoods to remove felled trees. And she’s enlisted friends like Engelhart to supply electrical parts to help homeowners regain power from as far away as Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Even though utilities have restored power to some neighborhoods, homeowners are struggling to find electricians or electrical components to plug into the grid, Bennett said, leaving groups of homes without power in areas where utilities have fixed connections.

And although President Donald Trump on Monday approved $45 million in disaster aid for Iowa in the wake of the storm, it’s a small portion of the $3.9 billion in aid Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds requested for her state on Sunday. That leaves homeowners, farmers and private utilities without assistance for now.

Bennett said community groups are now trying to make up for the lack of federal support. Many residents of eastern Iowa may face thousands of dollars in costs associated with repairing their homes and clearing piles of brush from their properties.

“There are piles of debris that are higher than semi-trucks,” Bennett said. “Recovering is just going to take time and manpower.”

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