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‘We are getting better’: Iowans reflect on derecho as recovery efforts continue

Published: Feb. 10, 2021 at 11:34 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - While the Aug. 10 derecho impacted nearly every part of the Cedar Rapids metro area, the sharpest winds — estimated at 140 miles per hour — slashed through the southwest part of the city, where many people from Cedar Rapids’ refugee and immigrant communities live.

Among them is Immaculee Mukahigiro. Six months to the day after the historic storm, she worked Wednesday at African Women Empowered at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, the same place she was the morning of Aug. 10.

“They said, ‘You have to leave right now because very soon, there will be storms,’” she said.

Mukahigiro left Rwanda in 1994, during the country’s civil war and genocide, then fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she and her family lived in a refugee camp, and Zambia before resettling in Pennsylvania and later moving to Cedar Rapids, where she has lived since 2013.

But she said the Aug. 10 derecho was like nothing she had ever experienced, as she sheltered inside her apartment in southwest Cedar Rapids and recalled not being able to see anything outside because of the severity of the storm.

“I said, ‘Oh, I left Africa. I left my country because I didn’t want to die there. I was afraid to die there with my kids. Now I’m going to die with such wind this evil,’” Mukahigiro said.

While Mukahigiro’s apartment was still livable, others near hers were ripped apart. Some people, particularly at the Cedar Terrace Apartments in southwest Cedar Rapids, slept in tents outside their roofless buildings.

Just about everyone was without power, and their food spoiled not long after.

Once they got food, Mukahigiro said they had no way to cook it.

“The idea came that we are going to live the same life we had in the refugee camps, so we were going in the forest to look for firewood, and we cooked outside,” she said.

But help did show up, bearing charcoal, more food, clothing, and resources. Mukahigiro said a member of St. Mark’s even brought a grill for her to cook outside.

Mukahigiro worked as a liaison between the people with donations and the people who needed them, many of whom were desperate for resources but faced a language barrier that hindered them.

“But many people came for help from — we didn’t know where they are from,” she said. “They just came to help.”

Lemi Tilahun, the community school coordinator at Hoover Community School in northwest Cedar Rapids, was part of that group of helpers.

He was at Cedar Terrace Apartments the morning of the storm, registering kids for the new school year and explaining what the return to the learning would look like in the pandemic.

After he and his colleagues saw a sunny August day turn dark in a matter of minutes, they headed back to the school.

“It was maybe a two-minute drive back to Hoover, and we just kind of watched the world fall apart from there,” Tilahum said.

The Hoover staff was among the many people working to put it back together on the west side of the city in the weeks after the storm.

“For a timeframe of probably about 21 days, we worked nonstop, day and night,” Tilahum said.

He said the challenges Cedar Rapids refugee and immigrant families faced at that time were more complicated than language barriers.

Many people did not know where to go for resources or with whom to get in contact for help, and others lacked the transportation necessary to get to the shelters set up in Linn County.

Past experiences stopped some from leaving their uninhabitable homes all together.

“Some families who were displaced, obviously this brought back a ton of trauma, and it triggered a lot of previously lived pain, and so going to shelters was even difficult,” Tilahun said, explaining that Hoover staff then came to the shelters too, so families had people there they recognized, whom they trusted and knew would help them.

Tilahun said they worked with families to evaluate what they needed and then turned to community partners to bring those resources to the people who needed them.

But six months later, Tilahun said recovery isn’t complete.

“We still have a lot of need for housing. We still have a lot of need for resources, resource navigation, childcare,” he said.

“We are recovering,” Mukahigiro added. “We are getting better.”

Mukahigiro and Tilahum said that is especially due to neighbors helping each other out right after the derecho and in the months that followed.

“This is how people love each other. This is what we have to be, all of us, to help one another,” Mukahigiro said.

But she said the storm that scarred the city six months ago left its mark on her too.

“Right now, I am thinking of next August,” Mukahigiro said. “If something were to happen again, I don’t know if I would survive.”

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