To hell and back: Three stories of derecho resilience

Katrina Benning stands in her Cedar Rapids home, severely damaged in last year’s derecho. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Home of Katrina Benning and Jeremiah Hopkins

When Katrina Benning and Jeremiah Hopkins bought their 1959 home on the edge of Bever Park in Cedar Rapids six years ago, both had been homeowners before. But this was their first home together. Their blended family, which brought together her two children and his four in what Benning called “kind of a Brady Bunch situation,” fit nicely in the spacious home. They loved the custom features, the beautiful backyard and the “wooded, secluded feeling” it had.

“We were both Westsiders as kids,” Hopkins said. “But we’ve really come to love the Southeast side.”

When the derecho hit on Aug. 10, 2020, one of the largest trees in their beloved backyard fell directly down the middle of the house. Another fell along the side, taking out the chimney. Altogether, they lost at least six trees.

“It went from completely shaded to no shade at all,” Benning said.

Jeremiah Hopkins stands outside his derecho-damaged home, July 2021. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Now, almost all of the walls are torn out, and much of the floor is gone as well. All of the custom finishes and features of the home have been gutted. And, while they’ve seen their neighbors and other community members wrapping up repairs or at the very least knowing a timeline for completion, they’re facing down yet another demand from their insurance company to send yet another adjuster out to the property, this time a large loss consultant.

Over the course of last fall, they had at least six different contractors out to the property. Many of them said the damage was the worst they’d seen from the storm; those that didn’t get back to them almost immediately to say the job was too big just ghosted them entirely. Finally, in November, they found a contractor willing to sign on — but it took until June for the third-party engineer the contractor brought on to produce a quote.

Now the ball is back in their insurance company’s court (a company that their bank required they use as a condition of their mortgage acceptance, Hopkins said). To make matters worse, their insurance premium has gone up 63 percent over last year (previous yearly increases have hovered around 4 percent).

“It’s been a wild ride,” Benning said. “I would say that yes, we’re stronger than ever. We’ve gone through hell together. I can’t imagine facing this with anyone else. … I would not have been able to get through this with anyone but him.”

Both Benning and Hopkins’ eldest daughter lived in flood-impacted homes back in 2008, so for them, the derecho experience dredged up past trauma as well as creating new.

“You just have to laugh at a lot of shit,” Benning said.

Katrina Benning inspects the roof on her home in July 2021, almost a year after it was damaged in the derecho. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

The family is currently living in a temporary home in Marion. The insurance company covers the rent, but other expenses are on them, including pet deposits for their three cats, the costs of moving and, of course, their mortgage. They’ve been in the rental since November; prior to that, they were living in a far-too-small house that was immediately available last August. Even where they are now is 1,600 square feet less than the 30th St home that they still have no idea when they can return to.

“We’ve been fortunate,” said Hopkins, speaking both of their current accommodations and of the outpouring of support they received from friends and coworkers immediately following the storm. Someone set up a GoFundMe, others brought food and supplies, still others showed up with their own chainsaws to help him in the yard.

But not knowing takes its toll.

“It’s a grief cycle,” Benning said, adding, “We both are going through different stages at different times … so we are able to help ground each other.”

Catherine McAuley Center, 1220 5th Ave SE, Cedar Rapids. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Catherine McAuley Center

1220 5th Ave SE, Cedar Rapids

The work that the Catherine McAuley Center does in the community, from education for recent immigrants to stability and support for women who have experienced trauma, is invaluable. Their services are so desperately needed, in fact, that last year, they outgrew the 4th Ave location where they’d been since 1993 (their second space) and moved into a 5th Ave building four times its size — on July 13, 2020. Exactly four weeks later, the derecho hit.

“Two of three wings (the wing that housed Women’s Services residents and the one where educational programming is delivered) sustained significant roof and water damage in the derecho on both the first and second floors,” Executive Director Paula Land said in an email. “While we were still adjusting some procedures in the new space and were not at full capacity due to the pandemic, we had just begun to open our doors for services at the time.”

It took the CMC until January of this year to complete the repairs. They prioritized renovations to the Women’s Services wing; residents were able to return in November. And the fact that they’d only recently moved turned out to be a boon in terms of their immediate needs.

“The Sunday following the derecho, we had an incredible team of volunteers and staff turn our former facility into a temporary shelter for refugees and immigrants who lived in the apartment complexes that were badly damaged on the southwest side,” Land said. “We made the decision at 8 a.m. on Sunday and had 24 people sleeping there that night.”

Even in the CMC’s trickiest moments, they were able to find ways to continue to be a light for the community. They continued offering educational services online; they were able to make their food pantry available even before repairs had been made; and they even opened up their third, undamaged wing to serve as an off-site learning center for middle and high school students to do their online learning while storm-damaged schools were undergoing repairs. There was no break in their case management services.

The community support that flowed back to them made it clear how much they are valued for the work that they do.

“The community surrounded us with support,” Land said. “We had truckloads of supplies donated from Des Moines, people donated washers and dryers for the shelter and countless others brought food and supplies for the shelter and other clients. The United Way and Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation offered grants that helped us cover the increased need that were immediate and accessible. NewBo City Market and the Olympic hosted a NewBo Derecho Show event as a fundraiser for us. Financially, we had more than 700 new donors, with donations coming in from more than 40 states! With most of our supporters being in Eastern Iowa, that shocked us, how word spread.”

Since all of the repairs were covered by insurance, they were able to put the generous funds that came in straight back into the work, covering the operating costs of the temporary shelter, disaster case management and more. Although their ability to provide full services onsite remains limited by the pandemic, they are hopeful that things will fall fully back into place soon.

“We already knew the populations we serve are resilient, but we learned that we as a staff and organization are also resilient,” Land said. “We became a stronger team and learned we can lean on each other to get through the challenging times and that we need to take time to stop and reflect, to celebrate and find the positive.”

Scott’s Furniture Stripping, 560 10th St, Marion. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

Scott’s Furniture Stripping

Scott Bezek has been refinishing furniture in Marion for over 30 years, but he’s owned the building on 10th St for just 14. The space has a wild history — it started out as a Seventh Day Adventist church and has served over the years as a fire station, a jail, a print shop in the 1860s for the still-extant magazine now known as the Bible Advocate, a tea shop and an antique store. But the building has spent most of its time as a refinishing shop.

From the 1920s through the 1980s, the space was a furniture repair shop known as Eckert’s. By the time Bezek bought the building in 2007, that type of business wasn’t typically allowed in the downtown area—but an exception was made because of the long use history of the building. Likewise, the county eventually agreed to re-classify the second floor of the building for Bezek to live in, as his predecessor had also done.

Until the derecho hit and he found himself living in his van instead.

Full sheets with shingles came off the roof of the Marion Heritage Center & Museum to one side of Bezek’s shop, cutting his roof in half. He lost his chimney.

“There was a 100-foot tree between me and the floral shop next door; we watched that tree fall,” Bezek said of the day of the storm. “It was so large it blocked the street. Parts are still there. It’s the city’s tree, but they don’t have any way to move it because it’s so big.”

But for Bezek’s business, the rain that followed was as big of a problem as the windstorm. He was anxious to protect his clients’ pieces that were in the shop at the time — at one point, he was up for a couple of days straight as the rain filled totes and buckets and he emptied them.

“It was hell,” he said.

Then the repairs began.

“Since we couldn’t find any construction workers, we kind of had to become construction workers,” Bezek said, joking that surely if you can rebuild furniture, you can rebuild a shop. An added benefit is that since he’s a self-contractor, he’s allowed to be in the building.

Chad Rhym/Little Village

In both this shop and another building Bezek owns on 7th Ave, he is using this opportunity to restore the spaces to a more original, historical look — right down to the rafters, literally. They repaired the masonwork and used old, original bricks. But early on in the process, he trusted the wrong contractor, a company he later learned had registered their business name five days after the storm hit. He sunk a lot of money in and got very little return. Bezek suspects, from their work on the 7th Ave building, that they had never repaired a flat roof before.

“Not a lot of things went right,” he said.

Ultimately, Bezek spent a quarter of a million dollars over three to four months in labor costs, Dumpster fees, materials and the like. And he put in countless hours of his own time, as well.

“I would’ve never dreamed that the tear-out would be so labor intensive and so expensive,” he said, also noting, “I would’ve thought we would’ve saved money doing so much of the work ourselves.” Despite his initial negative contractor experience, he acknowledged that “you pay professionals for a reason.”

While there’s still a lot of work to be done on his 7th Ave space — since he’s in the process of renovating anyway, he’s also putting in an accessible bathroom — his furniture repair shop is almost complete. He has an appointment in the first days of August for the inspectors to come, hopefully allowing him to remove the “condemned” sign from the door and reopen the shop to the public.

His customers have been gracious and patient throughout. Many were happy to have their pieces stay with him because their own damage and repair timelines made taking them back difficult. And they all told him to take his time, that they were in no hurry. At the moment, the only new work he’s accepting is stripping jobs. But things should return to some semblance of normal soon.

“Hopefully when they come through [next week], I’m sure that we can open up,” Bezek said.

Genevieve Trainor believes in community resilience. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.