I am Midwestern, and that means when I hear tornado sirens my instinct is to walk out to my back porch and stare at the sky.
Every single one of my neighbors does it, too. I look forward to storm season. I watch Twister at least once a year. I love that feeling when the hot summer air suddenly cools and you can feel the pressure change. I love the smell of a hard rain. I take pictures of the clouds and send them to my friends on a special text thread we call Cloudmangs. I stand there until there is a wind or a thunderclap so intense that it makes my wife insist we go to the basement. Then I wait another moment or two.
And so when the sirens went off on Monday I was disappointed that I was in my truck, working. I deliver magazines for Little Village, and I was making my weekly rounds, restocking the August issue. I had one more stop at the New Pioneer Co-op in Cedar Rapids. I kept looking at the sky but couldn’t see anything.
After I made the drop, I checked the radar on my phone. There was a solid red block to the west of Cedar Rapids with a tail that spanned south past Iowa City. There was no tornado warning, only a severe thunderstorm.
I weighed my options. I felt like I had enough time to get ahead of it, and even if it hit, I have driven through big storms before. Besides, with the pandemic, I really didn’t want to get stuck in the Co-op with a couple dozen other people, masks or not. I decided to chance it. I was wholly confident that it would be fine either way.
I hopped back on I-380 going south. The sky had darkened, but when I looked to my right I saw a demonic, glowing green followed by pitch black. It was closer than I had thought based on the radar. Traffic slowed a bit, I imagine because drivers were watching the storm. Ahead of me, on the other side of the Cedar River, I saw what looked like red lightning very close to the ground. I thought it was very strange.
Shortly after that, something — a branch I assume — flew over the top of my truck. I got closer to where the red lightning had been and a gust of wind hit my truck so strong I thought I might lose control. To my right I saw what looked like a giant fireball. It clicked that the red lightning must have been an explosion. I took the first exit I could. I needed to find shelter immediately.
I wound up on 7th Street headed southeast. There was traffic, which dumbfounded me. I had no idea where to go. As the weather intensified, I looked around and all the office buildings were closed (probably have been since March). I was at a stoplight when the big winds hit.
I was sure my truck would flip over. It shook hard, and I heard a stack of magazines in the back seat fall. A tree just outside my driver’s side window snapped at the roots. It didn’t just fall over. The whole tree blew across a parking lot about 50 feet before it fully stopped. The light turned green.
I was nearly in a full panic. I could hardly see anything. I could taste adrenaline. I weaved between lanes, trying to find somewhere that was relatively sheltered. I pulled into an alley next to a small, one-level parking garage. I left the truck running in the alley and ran into the ramp.
Two of the walls were cement and the other two were just cement columns. I ran into the corner where the two cement walls met. There was one other man standing near the corner; another was in his car, seemingly oblivious to the chaos erupting outside.
The wind was blowing so hard it seemed to be blowing the rain not just sideways, but upward. I now know that it sustained at about 100 mph. A 15-foot branch blew past the columns. A Dumpster in the alley barreled uphill and stopped two feet from my truck. Power lines started falling down as the poles toppled over. Trees snapped in half. The road was instantly covered in leaves and branches.
A 25-foot metal pole fell and clanged against the street, but you could barely hear it over the wind. Debris was flying into the parking garage. Insulation. Bits of plastic and metal. A four-foot section of a Taco Bell sign — the restaurant was a couple blocks away.
This was the first time in my life I had ever wished a storm would stop. But it just didn’t. It continued for almost an hour, howling and whipping objects past and through the cement columns.
After a while the guys in the ramp and I got comfortable enough to go peek out and see what was going on. From the back of the parking garage we could mostly just see sideways water. We watched a telephone pole tug back and forth, held only by one cable that was fastened to a streetlight.
When the storm finally calmed a little bit I got back into my truck. I was dripping wet, despite the shelter, and fairly shook. I had to navigate the alley between the dumpsters and bricks that were thrown about. I slowly made my way to I-380.
My wife had told me it was bad back home, that we lost three trees. I looked around as I was leaving Cedar Rapids and saw that they had lost virtually every tree. I got on the interstate and it seemed all the trees along the highway had snapped in half.
I counted 10 semi-trucks that had flipped on the way home. The low fuel light was on so I stopped at the Casey’s by the airport. They told me to leave, quickly. There had been a gas leak.
When I got home, Iowa City looked bad, very bad even, but it was nothing like Cedar Rapids. Trees were down, roads were closed, power and internet were out, houses and fences were damaged, cars were crushed, and yet it really didn’t come close. From what I could see on my way out of town, Cedar Rapids looked like it was gone. There wasn’t a lot of damage — everything was damaged.
Wednesday afternoon, after a day and half of cleaning up my own yard, I drove back up to Cedar Rapids to check on the Little Village outdoor racks. The carnage was astounding. I drove down blocks where I couldn’t even see the houses because the branches were stacked so high. Almost every large tree was down.
Not a single building had power. Homes were completely ruined. Every gas station was closed. Every face was completely worn out.
It is still that way. And it will be for at least a week, with ramifications extending for months. No gas, no food, no power, no internet, no cell service, no access to dial 911, no access to medicine, no access to unemployment benefits, no air conditioning, no refrigeration, severely damaged shelter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Twister. The whole point of that movie was they were trying to learn more about tornadoes so they could create better advanced warning systems. That movie came out 24 years ago. Since then, warnings and technology have improved greatly. People have way more time to find shelter. And yet, there was no warning of how severe this storm would be.
These days it seems the sirens are set off a lot more often than they used to be, so much so that I have taken for granted that they mean danger. I had a little under 20 minutes from when the sirens went off to when the storm hit. And still, I had no idea.
This storm, this story, and most importantly these people require national attention. The people of Cedar Rapids need state and federal assistance — yesterday. Please donate, call your representatives, volunteer and amplify the stories of those affected. It is a most urgent need. Cedar Rapids was hit with an inland hurricane and we must help them.
Brian Johannesen is Little Village’s head of distribution and events.
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