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'The Devastation Is Widespread.' Iowans Continue To Struggle Following Deadly Derecho

Thousands of Iowans are still coping with the aftermath of a storm that pummeled the state last Monday with 100-mile-per-hour winds — a storm that flattened corn and soybean crops, damaged grain elevators and leveled banks, churches and homes.

More than 158,000 Iowans were still without power as of Friday evening, according to Iowa Public Radio. By Sunday morning, more than 98,000 continued to lack power, according to the monitoring site PowerOutage.US.

"The devastation is widespread. It's intense. Block after block of houses, every one with some amount of damage. Trees piled 6 to 10 feet high along the road. It's like walking through a tunnel of green with some fluorescent orange of placard houses that are unsafe to enter," Tyler Olson, a city council member from Cedar Rapids, told NPR's Weekend Edition on Saturday. "The city itself has been working hard to get roads cleared, so that has taken place in many parts of the city. But we're still without power. The majority of our citizens are without power."

The storm system that flattened crops and toppled trees is called a derecho, a particularly damaging and severe kind of wind storm that can cause hurricane-force winds, tornadoes and heavy rains. As many as 14 million acres of farmland were damaged by the storm,The New York Times reported.

"It's by far the most extensive and widespread damage that we've seen on this farm," Aaron Lehman, who grows corn and soybeans in Polk County in central Iowa, told Harvest Public Media. Lehman, who serves as president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said the damage was worse than a typical tornado.

"Unlike a tornado, which is a mile wide, this stretched for a width of really intense damage — of approximately 40 miles, probably closer to 60-70 miles wide," he said.

In Cedar Rapids, some families were left living in tents. At one badly damaged apartment complex, displaced children played outside amid shredded shingles, rusting nails and the chunks of fiberglass insulation, Iowa Public Radio reported.

"I didn't hear no sirens until our electricity went off. And then we went out and looked out the window and then it just all happened," said 14-year-old Lenberg Phillip in an interview with Iowa Public radio. "We were just watching out the window and then minutes later the roof came off."

Olson says they're still hoping to get a presidential disaster declaration.

"We need electricity," Olson said. "The [Iowa] National Guard arrived a couple of days ago to assist with utility with power back on, but we have citizens without food, without medicine. And we're working as hard as we can as a city to meet those needs but we really need the federal government and their resources."

President Donald Trump has not signed an emergency declaration yet. OnTuesday, he tweeted: "Sad to see the damage from the derecho in Midwest. 112 mile per hour winds in Midway, Iowa! The Federal government is in close coordination with State officials. We are with you all the way - Stay safe and strong!"

At a press conference in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said the soonest she'd be able to submit an application for a disaster declaration is on Monday, according to Iowa Public Radio.

"We're moving forward, we're coordinating efforts, we're working with the local emergency managers and working with city officials and the mayor," Reynolds said. "They're on the ground. They need to let us know how we can supplement and help them with the work that they're doing and that's how we can efficiently and effectively serve citizens."

This all comes as Iowa continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rate of infections appears to be decreasing, now averaging 458 new cases a week with more than 52,000 cases and 975 deaths, experts are worried about how the state will be able to handle two disasters at once.

"[The pandemic] has complicated relief efforts," Olson said. "It's hard to gather people together. It's hard for repair companies, insurance adjusters, to go into homes. Obviously protections that are in place because of the pandemic. And it really, the city's resources were strained before in trying to deal with that and now we're dealing with this probably historic disaster."

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