Community spirit flourishes in aftermath of derecho

August 26, 2020 — It got dark quickly around noon Aug. 10 at the Elm Street house in Grinnell rented by brothers Jackson Breshears ’21, Kort Breshears ’23, and their roommates.

“At first we thought the fast winds were super cool,” Jackson says. “But then it kept getting more intense. Out of nowhere we all got a little quiet and had the same thought of perhaps we should go to the center of our house in case there’s a tornado. We hadn’t heard of a derecho before.”

The derecho wreaked havoc on trees of all sizes, including this giant that fell in front of Macy House.
The derecho wreaked havoc on trees of all sizes, including this giant that fell in front of Macy House.

Few people had prior to Aug. 10, but one look outside in Grinnell and other parts of Iowa exhibited just how much destruction the widespread wind storm could leave behind. For Grinnell College alone, the derecho caused an estimated $2 million in structural and tree damage. For the Breshears brothers and many others, it caused a week or longer without power.

While the storm took a physical toll on Grinnell, it also sparked an emotional outpouring of camaraderie. From campus to every corner of town, Grinnellians bonded together to assist one another in countless ways, says Sarah Smith, director of outreach programs and events.

“It’s been really awesome to watch what I always knew was here in Grinnell – the great community spirit and caring for each other,” she says.

While compassion and volunteerism are important pieces to storm recovery, it also takes coordination, preparedness, vision, and dedication. A dose of luck also is a helpful ingredient. The derecho recovery is a case of all those attributes happening in harmony, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time.    

“There were so many moving pieces to our storm recovery; it was just absolutely crazy,” says Heather Cox, Grinnell College associate director of emergency management. “But somehow everyone fell into their niche and was able to make it all happen. I'm thankful that people came together and showed a lot of care for each other. It made me be proud to be part of the Grinnell College team and to live in Grinnell.”

Trees and roofs take a beating

Of the 95 structures the College owns on campus and around town, about 80 of them had some type of roof damage. Most had minor damage with a few shingles missing. A few took direct hits from neighboring trees, such as The Chinese House, which is now missing its north roof gable. A tree branch punctured the roof of a guest house at 1002 Park St. A fallen tree smashed railings at the golf course clubhouse. Two trees fell onto the Forum’s roof. On the north side of Herrick Chapel’s pitched roof, 75 percent of the shingles are gone.

The roof of the Chinese House on Park Street was hit by a fallen tree during the derecho on Aug. 10. The storm cause roof damage to about 80 structures owned by the College.
The roof of the Chinese House on Park Street was hit by a fallen tree during the derecho on Aug. 10. The storm caused roof damage to about 80 structures owned by the College.

With a very low density campus, online courses, and little damage to residence halls and the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center (JRC), the damage shouldn’t further adversely affect Fall Term 1 too much. The start of the term was pushed back from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31.

“What was convenient about the damage is it shouldn’t have much impact on operations going forward,” says Rick Whitney, assistant vice president for facilities management. “Most of the buildings impacted were auxiliary buildings. Hopefully we will have the repairs completed in the next few months.”

The College lost a large number of trees, which is particularly noticeable on Central Campus. Facilities management staff took care of removing trees on the ground and on streets around campus first, and then dealt with hanging trees. The last step is taking down old trees that have basically been destroyed, a process that could take six months or more. The College will submit separate insurance claims for both the trees and structures. Damage estimates for each is about $1 million, Whitney says.

“Kudos to my team [in facilities management] for really stepping up,” Whitney says. “As soon as they got off work, they had their own emergencies to deal with. It was double duty for a lot of folks. We also had students, faculty, and staff pitch in with debris clean up. It was really a community effort.”

A natural disaster within a pandemic

Shortly after students departed campus in March to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, College leaders participated in an exercise encompassing managing a tornado in a pandemic. Cox said that made-up scenario played out with limited damage and power outages, so it wasn’t a direct comparison to the derecho. But it was helpful.

“The scenario helped quite a bit in just thinking about what services we need to make available,” she says. “How would we make sure students would be fed if the power was out, and how do we make sure people have access to an air-conditioned place. What we didn't anticipate was the expansive internet outages across town and that a remote workforce would not have the ability to communicate because of cell and internet outages.”

After the storm hit, the first order of business was making sure students were OK. Without cell service, residence life coordinators went to the residence halls to check. Student Affairs began reaching out to off-campus students to ensure they were safe. Faculty and staff mobilized to check on each other. Dining services started to figure out how to prepare meals.

Cox says they put together an emergency operations center as best they could in a pandemic.

“We found a space where a few people could be together and still be socially distant,” she says. “We had President Anne Harris, Dean Elaine Marzluff, Chief of Staff Angela Voos together so they could quickly make decisions. People could pop in and ask a question and get the answer very quickly and then go out and disseminate the information.”

When it became evident that the power was going to be out for a significant amount of time, county officials reached out to Cox about opening a community shelter at the College.

“As an emergency operations team, we had already thought about what spaces made sense as a shelter,” Cox says. “That changed a little bit in a pandemic when we are trying to think about how to set up a shelter in a way that we can easily sequester it from the main campus and not have it right in the middle of where students and employees are coming and going.”

Putting the COMMUNITY in community shelter

The fieldhouse inside the Charles Benson Bear ’39 Recreation and Athletic Center opened as a community shelter two days after the derecho. It was yet another example of community solidarity and fortuitous preparation.

The Grinnell Fire Auxiliary is made up of spouses of Grinnell firefighters. Eleven auxiliary members went through a Red Cross certification in January to become emergency shelter helpers.

“We didn’t realize that we would be setting up a shelter so soon, but it turned out to be perfect timing,” Aundi Smith says. “If nothing else we’ve been able to help get people’s phones and laptops charged up and provide hot showers.”

Several College staff members in facilities management, athletics, and campus safety helped get the fieldhouse ready. Local companies donated food, water, and supplies. Volunteers staffed the shelter 24 hours a day. In the first week, the shelter served 345 people. While it obviously was a difficult time, Smith said those coming to the shelter were in high spirits.

“They were happy to have this facility open,” Smith says. “We’ve had a lot of people come in and ask to volunteer. One College student who stayed the night on Aug. 13 volunteered the next day and threw two other volunteers our way as well. It’s a spirit of you help me, I help you, and we will get through this together.”

Two volunteers work on sawing a tree that had toppled over on Grinnell’s campus.
Two volunteers work on sawing a tree that had toppled over on Grinnell’s campus.

Organizing volunteers

The community spirit also was evident in Grinnell neighborhoods. Hailing from Tucson, the Breshears brothers– who play basketball and run track at the College – were quick to check on neighbors and clear branches. Sarah Smith noticed a Facebook group formed by a former classmate of hers had many posts asking for help with yard cleanup or needing chainsaws. She asked if she could help get volunteers organized.

“It was pretty much a question of asking who needs help and who can help,” Smith says. “I wanted to make sure we had a list each day of addresses and what was needed in those yards. The response was incredible. Halfway through the day, those yards would be done, and I’d have more addresses to put up. We’ve had over 230 volunteers to this point.”

Because not everyone is in on Facebook or has steady internet access right now, a group of volunteers are driving around Grinnell to identify yards with trees or debris that haven’t been cleaned up. They are also knocking on doors and distributing a flyer that lists where people can get help. Residents can also call Smith at 641-990-5887 to request volunteers or chainsaw assistance.

“One of the first homes where I helped, a resident was moved to tears of gratitude,” Smith says. “She told me, ‘I just don’t have money to buy a chainsaw. I can’t tell you how thankful I am.’”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Grinnell College’s storm recovery page has news updates, community links, and storm resources. Grinnellians impacted by the derecho can receive diploma replacement, complimentary transcripts and other related resources.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.