For an hour, John W. Weaver’s stepson held fast to the door in their mobile home to keep it from flying open.
When the storm was over, “we walked out and everywhere you looked was trees and more trees,” he said.
Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas suffered major damage from an Aug. 10 derecho — a weather pattern often described as an “inland hurricane.” Wind gusts over 140 mph left a 700-mile path of destruction across six Midwestern states.
By that evening, individuals were out with chainsaws clearing trees and the Iowa United Methodist Conference disaster relief coordinators were fielding calls from churches wanting to help.
The Rev. Jason Collier, pastor of Ainsworth Community Church and United Church of Crawfordsville, said a team from his churches spent two days at a single home.
“We had four guys, nine chainsaws and a skid steer — there’s just that much work,” he said. “But we’re only an hour from here and with this much devastation, you can’t not help.”
A crew from Marion First United Methodist Church helped strip the shingles from Weaver’s damaged roof and put up a tarp to keep rain from getting in. Weaver was happy to find out who was coming to help.
“I was raised Methodist by my mom, and you could say I still kinda lean Methodist,” he said.
The Iowa Conference received a $10,000 solidarity grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which helps with immediate material needs. The conference is eligible for another grant after more detailed plans are outlined.
The Rev. Nick Grove, pastor of Sharon United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, has been juggling time between helping neighborhood cleanup crews and tending to his own church and home.
Grove and his wife, Chelsey, were at home when the storm came and had to run to the basement. There was no power at the parsonage for a week and, in addition to losing several trees, the church roof suffered damage.
“Not a single house in this neighborhood escaped,” he said.
Due to the coronavirus, the congregation had been holding worship in the parking lot since July 1 and the derecho didn’t stop them from meeting, thanks to a generator.
Thousands of homes lost power across the city and generators were hard to come by, but an unexpected donation provided a unique opportunity for Matthew 25 Ministry Hub, a nonprofit mission partner of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids.
Matthew 25 runs a variety of ministries, including food and housing programs, but didn’t plan to be a generator distributor. That changed when door-to-door neighborhood wellness checks revealed a great need at about the time someone donated 30 generators. Cash donations helped the organization purchase almost 40 more to create a lending program that has helped more than 100 households.
The ministry got a huge boost from national TV personality Mike Rowe, who had encountered Matthew 25 while in Cedar Rapids a year after its 2008 flood.
“Mike gave us a shout-out on Facebook and we received hundreds of donations in the first hour. That one mention generated about $100,000,” said the Rev. Clint Twedt-Ball, executive director.
Matthew 25’s mission partner, St. Paul’s, was one of five city-designated distribution centers, open every day for three weeks following the storm. In addition to food and basic necessities like diapers or personal hygiene items, the center had crisis counselors on site daily and often had booths providing school supplies. Other days, a Department of Human Services representative was available to help with replacement food assistance cards.
“The church is a great partner for us,” said Sylvia Brueckert, a Cedar Rapids city planner. “They help us find volunteers and put out the message on our donation needs.”
More than 150 communities in the Iowa Conference were impacted by the derecho and 18 churches were damaged — the worst being Christ Community Church in Marion.
Most of the sanctuary’s roof collapsed and water damage resulted in having to tear out the space and rebuild.
“We were part of helping to start this church, so I remember standing on this cement when it was brand new,” said the Rev. Becky High, pastor. “That makes it more of a privilege to be part of the rebuild.”
Iowa Area Bishop Laurie Haller, surveying the damage, noted that one thing remained standing on the altar: the cross.
“I’m astonished at the devastation, but that’s what touches my heart the most,” she said. “The cross is there and that’s what sustains us.”
High said the congregation had been hoping to return to in-person worship soon, having been exclusively online since the coronavirus pandemic began. It may be possible to meet in the fellowship hall, which was not damaged and could accommodate a limited capacity service. If not, they’ll meet outdoors, but she feels the need to be together at this time.
“We miss our church community, we miss and need one another,” she said. “We aren’t the building; we are the body of Christ.”
After months of isolation due to coronavirus lockdowns, some pastors thought people interacting during the cleanup was helpful.
“The destruction has been horrific but, oddly enough, for people to be out in yards cleaning up and seeing each other is exactly what they needed,” said Twedt-Ball.
The Rev. Scott Meador, lead pastor of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, found an opportunity for “old-school ministry.”
"The first couple days after the storm, when cell service was down, I went back to doing home visits,” he said. “Not even making appointments, just showing up and talking to people while they were in their yard.”
Haller cautioned clergy not to ignore their own self-care while tending to others’ needs.
“Each one of us has responsibility for the spiritual care of others, and yet we can’t do much for others unless we’re really whole ourselves,” she said.
The Rev. Catie Newman, conference disaster response coordinator, said respite Sundays are available. Conference staff and district superintendents have offered to substitute preach for any pastor without costing them a vacation day.
“We’re also fielding requests from our brothers and sisters throughout the conference who said they’re not equipped to do things like tarp a roof, but could sit in a tent in the church parking lot with a bucket of cold water, just listening to people and being a caring presence,” she said.
When the storm hit, the Rev. Jon Moss knew that being a caring presence was the best thing he could do.
“I made probably 35 phone calls and couldn’t get through to anyone so I left home after the storm stopped, with only one lane of one road open,” he said.
Moss is pastor of Prairie Chapel and Alburnett United Methodist churches, and many of his congregants live in very rural areas. He eventually found himself way out on gravel roads in total darkness.
One of his stops was at the farm of Wayne Blackford, Prairie Chapel’s lay leader. Blackford’s 1,700-acre corn crop was flattened by the strong winds, leaving it vulnerable to rotting on the ground before it can be harvested. In addition, he lost 14 silos and several barns — one of which collapsed and killed 14 cattle.
Blackford had loaded the cattle to take to market before the storm hit but held off until he saw how severe the storm was going to be.
“We were in the house and the siding came off, and I said, ‘Maybe we should go to the basement.’ It didn’t have that train sound, but it was really purrin’ when it went over.”
Blackford said he hopes to salvage half his crop, but may lose it all because there’s nowhere to store it now.
“These are times you can feel inadequate because they need somebody to grab a chainsaw,” said Moss. “My role is to come alongside them and listen, remind them that God is still a refuge and strength here. One gentleman said, ‘You’re bringing church to me this week.’”
Moss said it’s difficult to be hopeful looking at all the destruction, but he lifted up the one church member he was unable to reach in the immediate aftermath.
“When I finally found her two days later, she’d been in another town helping clear debris. Now that’s the church!”
As with most disasters, recovery efforts will take a long time and there’s always another storm that will draw attention and resources away from the current one.
“Everyone’s quick to help for a week or two,” said the Rev. Andrew Happ, disaster relief coordinator for the East Central District. “We have to remind folks this isn’t a sprint, it’s a distance run and there’s still work to be done.”
Nick Grove said the most pressing need now is for skilled workers.
“We need roofers, structural damage experts, siding and exterior, bucket trucks. Basically, we need specialists en masse. I’ve heard of tree people being booked into next year.”
There are also UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams from four other United Methodist conferences on the ground.
“It’s a familial relationship: What one conference needs, another can step in to provide, and we coordinate,” said Lara Martin, UMCOR’s interim director of U.S. Disaster Response. “With good training and good people, we can go do God’s good work.”
Martin said effective local training and preparation help UMCOR to resource numerous recoveries at once.
“The preparation before every emergency determines how well the relief effort will go. We have great teams that know what they’re doing,” she said.
Newman encouraged everyone to keep Iowa on their radar.
On the day Hurricane Laura made landfall in Texas and Louisiana, she said, “There are many other things that will take over our attention, and the world’s attention, but we’re going to keep derecho survivors in our prayers and in our actions.”
Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and DuBose is staff photographer for UM News. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.