Community comes together for derecho recovery

Catholics among many affected by storm, involved in relief efforts

By Katie Mills Giorgio

Witness Correspondent

CEDAR RAPIDS — The derecho storm that barreled through Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities on August 10th created an estimated $4 billion of damage across the state. While the immediate response to the storm was to get trees removed from roads and power restored to homeowners and businesses, the long-term clean-up efforts are proving to residents that assistance and patience are still needed.

Many residents are still struggling to get their yards and homes picked up and put back together; some are even left homeless. Others are still without internet access. It may be weeks out from the storm, but community members shared that there is much work to do to pick up the pieces.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque partnered with local Catholic parishes, volunteers and other organizations to distribute over 228,000 pounds of food. The food was from the USDA and transported to Cedar Rapids by Hot Meals USA. (Photo provided by Catholic Charities/Archdiocese of Dubuque)

On the west side of Cedar Rapids, homeowner and parishioner of St. John XXIII Amber O’Connor is dealing with extensive damage to her family’s home.

“The largest wind gust recorded in our sector of the city was 140 mph and I believe it,” she said. “When my family emerged from the basement, we were just in awe. The freight train-like sounds we heard from outside of the house mangled our yard. Trees were down, furniture was tossed (and in some cases, missing), roof parts were all over the yard, and a tree broke onto our roof in the backyard.”

O’Connor said each level of her home has damage as the wind pushed water through each window and door frame on the west side of our house, which then poured into each vent, wall, floor or windowsill.

“We have ceilings with water damage, lights with water sitting in them, walls and trim with water damage, and floors we had to rip out. The list goes on and on,” she said, noting she thinks it will be a year before her home is back to its pre-storm state. “There is a huge demand on contractors for all of the work we need done, as well as the materials needed to do so. Plus we are dealing with storm damage during a pandemic and that is not going to be easy.”

O’Connor’s story is not unique. Unlike the damage created after a tornado, the derecho and its straight line winds brought destruction to virtually every property across the city.

Not surprisingly, many residents got to work cleaning up and also reaching out to help their neighbors. St. John XXIII parishioner Lindsey Leahy of Cedar Rapids rounded up groups of friends to help support their neighbors and community. A group email went out seeking donations, and “by God’s grace we were able to raise a little over $5,000,” she said.

At least 100 volunteers helped with the food distribution Aug. 29-31. The events were held in the parking lots of St. Matthew and St. Jude Catholic parishes. Those in need drove up in lines to receive goods, which were free thanks to generous donors and others. (Photo provided by Catholic Charities/Archdiocese of Dubuque)

Leahy and friends gathered supplies, loaded up vehicles and went out to help others.  “We encountered some heartbreaking situations,” she said. “There were several families who lost everything so they needed the very basics like a pair of shoes, socks, underwear, a shirt and pants, diapers, and the essentials. Most everyone needed hygiene supplies and water.”

Leahy said they brought food and snacks that didn’t require refrigeration and cooking and as time went on the requests changed to cleaning supplies, batteries, charcoal, and gift cards for gas.

“Many families did not speak English and were hesitant to interact with us but when we kept coming around and were clear that we were there to help, they warmed up,” she said. “Everyone we met was extremely grateful. They were careful only to take what they needed so their neighbors and friends got what they needed too. They were willing to share things and I was inspired by their communal way of living.”

Leahy felt called to help those vulnerable populations.

“These people were not living in conditions that most of us would not be comfortable having our own family live in before the storm, and after the storm the conditions would have been unbearable for most people, but they were just grateful for anything they had,” she said. “That was a humbling life lesson and a blessing to see people grateful and hopeful even in the worst circumstances.”

While the disaster has been a huge burden, Leahy and others reiterated that this ordeal has truly highlighted the goodness of humanity.

“Despite being deeply saddened by witnessing some people lose everything, I am also in awe of everyone coming together to help neighbors, friends, and strangers,” she said. “At times you feel hopeless and overwhelmed, and then you remember that helping one person is helping. Encouraging others to help is also helping. It seemed that everyone just started to pitch in wherever they were in whatever way they could.”

“It’s also been amazing to witness individuals stepping up and sharing their talents and gifts anywhere and any way they can,” she added. “People walking around neighborhoods with chainsaws and asking people if they can help cut down trees. People making sandwiches and driving around neighborhoods, knocking on doors, to ensure no one goes hungry. Folks honking and waving at, and then serving food and drink and leaving notes for the linemen. During this time there was no doubt that people knew what was most important in this community, and we were willing to sacrifice our own comfort to ensure others didn’t suffer.”

Damage to the roof and siding of St. Pius X Parish’s rectory in Cedar Rapids caused by the Aug. 10 derecho storm is seen in the photo above. Churches and schools were among the buildings affected. Thousands of homes, apartments, farms and other businesses also sustained damage. (Contributed photo)

O’Connor agreed.

“We saw what this community did to rally from the 2008 floods, and Cedar Rapids did it again with the 2020 derecho,” O’Connor said. “Focusing on helping others, at least for us, helps us deal with this storm. This recovery process will be a long one and we are ready to do our part to continue to help.”

Organizations have banned together to do their part as well. From Aug. 29-31, Catholic Charities partnered with a number of organizations, including St. Matthew Parish, St. Jude’s Parish, Hot Meals USA, HACAP, Metro Catholic Outreach, Hupp Toyota Lift, and others to distribute fresh produce boxes to those in need in the area. The effort was organized in a matter for 72 hours, according to Megan Stammeyer, Public Relations Director for Catholic Charities.

In total, six semi-trucks full of fresh produce and another 35,000 pounds of frozen, precooked meat and dairy were distributed over three days for a total of 228,000 pounds of food. The food was from the USDA and transported to Cedar Rapids by Hot Meals USA. Stammeyer noted that people were grateful to be receiving fresh items as many other food pantries for shelf-stable items have been set up around the area.

“Those three days just demonstrated how great the need still is,” she said. “Catholic Charities is here to try and provide help and create hope for those who are the most vulnerable. And the storm has really laid bare that you have people who had barriers before and now those barriers just got a lot more difficult.”

Stammeyer added that she was just blown away by the volunteer response, which included a need for at least one hundred volunteers over three or four different shifts throughout the day for three days. As soon as sign ups were created, she said, spots were filled. “We’ve saw so much goodness in those three days on the behalf of volunteers and of the recipients.”

Cedar Rapids resident Monica Pfremmer expressed her gratitude for the giveaway, which was free, didn’t require any paperwork, and allowed those picking up boxes to take multiple boxes to give to friends and neighbors. “I think we are all grateful that there are people out there willing to help us even now,” she said. “This has been a blessing to have people donate their time and food to those of us still struggling to replace all the food we lost.”

Stammeyer said Catholic Charites plans to continue connecting with the parishes in the nine counties they serve that were impacted and will work on further relief efforts and support. “This is far from over. Catholic Charities is here to support our parishes for a long-term recovery effort.”

As recovery continues, others want to make sure that message is heard loud and clear.

“Everyone we know had some form of damage to their home or property,” said O’Connor. “Yes, we are Iowans and we are strong, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need help…We had no time to prepare for this storm — it’s a miracle more people didn’t lose their lives. We will continue to need assistance to rebuild from this. We can’t do it alone.”

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque has set up a relief fund to help those affected by the derecho. For more information or to donate, visit


Cover image: Volunteers load boxes of food into a car during a major food distribution effort Aug. 29-31. Catholic Charities partnered with parishes and other organizations for the events. (Photo contributed by Catholic Charities/Archdiocese of Dubuque)