A year after the derecho, advocates reflect on how to better assist immigrant and refugee families in times of disaster

Cedar Terrace image © Google 2019, Derecho tree photo and collage by Jordan Sellergren

After the August 2020 derecho, Nabintu Baguma was most concerned about her four kids.

Baguma, who is originally from Congo, has lived in Cedar Rapids for eight years and used to reside at the Cedar Terrace Apartments. The buildings in that apartment complex suffered some of the worst damage in the derecho, making the units unlivable. Following the storm, Baguma and her family slept outside at the complex. When that was no longer an option, they relocated to a shelter.

Baguma, her husband and children were staying at the shelter until recently, she said through an interpreter. They’re now renting a home in the city, but it’s not big enough for the family. Finding an affordable house that is big enough for her family remains the biggest, and most complex, post-derecho problem Baguma is facing.

While everyone in Cedar Rapids felt the impact of the storm in the weeks and months following the derecho, some members of the community felt it harder.

The derecho highlighted a number of challenges faced by the refugee and immigrant community in Cedar Rapids, challenges that are affecting recovery efforts. Language barriers, past trauma, need for cultural awareness and lack of affordable housing are among the issues that need to be addressed, community organizer Lemi Tilahun said.

“When we look at the disproportionate impact of this storm, you can clearly see that it is heavier on our most economically disadvantaged folks: people of color, immigrants, refugees, single-parent households,” Tilahun said. “The effects are obvious, like the rise in homelessness and the displacement. All of these things didn’t happen overnight. The derecho was an expediting factor in elevating this to a new level and raising urgency, but it’s been more systemic than that. There were many layers that have contributed to the fact that the derecho just exposed how unprepared we were and how unequitable the systems that were in place were.”

“What the storm did physically was devastating, but the storm wasn’t the cause of the delay in response. It wasn’t the cause of the inequities,” Tilahun continued. “It certainly added a challenge, but it didn’t blow away the barriers. It just exposed them.”

Tilahun works for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, supervising the implementation of the community school model at Hoover Elementary. On Aug. 10, 2020 — the day of the derecho — Tilahun was at Cedar Terrace Apartments in the morning with other members of the community school team to register families for the upcoming school year.

He remembers thinking it was a nice day that morning, and even took a picture of the bright, sunny sky. Minutes later, the sky turned dark, Tilahun recalled. He returned to Hoover Elementary. After the storm it was all a “changed world,” he said.

The drive back to Cedar Terrace, which usually takes a couple of minutes, took closer to half an hour because of storm damage and debris in the streets.

“Going back to Cedar Terrace, my initial reaction to what I saw was not very positive at all,” Tilahun said. “In fact, I saw the destruction and just I was heartbroken to see and worried because there were lots of families. There’s lots of kids who I’ve worked with every single day for over two, three years.”

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“It still brings me a lot of stress just thinking about it. It was a pretty traumatic event because minutes before we were fine and things were going well. And we were trying to do good by being able to bring [resources to] these families, who are disadvantaged and face many barriers, and then you see something like the derecho.”

‘They felt invisible’

On the anniversary of the derecho, the City of Cedar Rapids held an event to celebrate recovery efforts of the last year. Mayor Brad Hart reminded community members of the damage: all 75 square miles of the city were devastated, and 6,000 homes and businesses were damaged.

And while there has been progress in recovery, Tilahun said parts of the city that haven’t gotten as much attention with clean-up, serving as a “pretty dark reminder” of the storm.

Tilahun brought up Cedar Terrace Apartments, Westdale Courts, Glenbrook West and Arrowridge and Shamrock Apartments, all areas that were heavily impacted by the storm. Iowa Public Radio’s Kate Payne reported earlier this month that some units at the Westdale Court apartments appear almost unchanged, and the apartments at Cedar Terrace are empty with reconstruction still underway.

“The work has been slow to come, and a lot of folks who occupy those spaces are our folks from these emerging communities, our refugees, our immigrants,” Tilahun said, adding that he’s not sure if it’s a systemic issue, lack of responsibility on behalf of landlords or something else.

“It’s an extra hurdle. The reason why a lot of people were resorting to having sleep in tents as their best option days following the storm, they felt invisible. They were making a statement that no one was going to come for help.”

Recognizing cultural differences in disaster response

Following the derecho, staff and case managers at the Catherine McAuley Center began to drive around in an effort to check in with their clients since they couldn’t communicate by text or phone call like usual. (The nonprofit’s building was also badly damaged during the storm.)

“It was a 24/7 job, truly,” CMC’s executive director Paula Land said about the recovery efforts. “Immediately following the derecho, all of us had our own personal things. We had a couple of staff whose cars were totaled. We had one of our staff members actually live in the apartment complexes that were damaged or destroyed. But everybody showed up the next day. Everybody came together. Everybody helped clean up.”

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

The center is an affiliate of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and CMC’s Refugee and Immigrant Services Program provides “a wide range of educational and support services specifically for the unique needs of refugees and immigrants,” as its site explains.

In the wake of the derecho, CMC created temporary housing, a food pantry and hygiene closet, and checked in with clients to answer questions and provide supportive services.

The temporary housing was set up at the former CMC building, with 24 private rooms, two kitchens and access to interpreters. Land said 24 individuals were there the first night the housing opened. In total, CMC was able to provide housing for 72 displaced individuals.

What prompted the center to create the temporary housing was staff members seeing some individuals were not using emergency services provided by the Red Cross. Land said that was most likely due to cultural and language barriers. She recalled how the Red Cross pulled up a bus in front of the apartment complex and said to get on the bus without much explanation, an approach that “wasn’t necessarily culturally aware.”

“That was a rather triggering experience,” Land said. “We had to help them understand what types of housing is available in times of disaster, and I think one thing that we were able to provide is that we had staff at all times who spoke the languages of the people that were housed at our building.”

Being able to provide access to a kitchen at the temporary housing was also a huge benefit, said Sara Zejnic, CMC’s director of refugee and immigrant services. This gave families the ability to cook and prepare culturally appropriate meals for themselves.

“We talked about food as being comfort but also the dignity of being able to choose what you’re going to eat when everything else in your world has been upended,” Zejnic said. “Providing that to people who’ve experienced so much instability, just by virtue of the fact that they’re refugees and they fled their homes once already and now they’re being displaced yet again. … It was really important to be able to have that language access and give people the opportunity to cook their own food and choose what they eat and still have that sense of community. But we honestly could not have done it without the multilingual staff that we’ve got, and their willingness and dedication to become a 24-hour shelter.”

CMC staff recognized how important a sense of community was and tried to replicate that at the temporary housing.

“I think one of the things that we saw that was most devastating for a lot of people was the loss of that sense of community, especially at places like Cedar Terrace or the other apartment complexes,” Zejnic said. “They had that group — the community — quite literally surrounding them. … When that was disrupted by the storm, splitting out into different apartments and different homes, that was something that people really wanted to maintain.”

For the families who have moved into a new home or apartment, it’s a “step in the right direction,” but it doesn’t mean everything’s “magically better,” Zejnic said. Some still face issues navigating repairs or filing insurance claims.

What about the next disaster?

Zejnic said CMC clients have been asking what will happen if another natural disaster like the 2020 derecho happens again.

Land added that CMC and other service providers in the city have been having discussions about preparing the organizations for future storms. These talks have centered around how to reduce barriers, create access and strengthen the communication among the various agencies.

There is also a need for ethnic community-based organizations, Tilahun said — groups that can continue building trust and have existing relationships with the individuals living in these communities.

“We have experienced a tremendous population growth, particularly in our cultural and linguistic diversity here in the area, and I don’t know if there has been enough of an effort to reach out to establish connection, establish trust,” Tilahun said. “Because at the end of the day, trust equals access.”

Tilahun said a step toward recovery would be to focus on building trust and providing information. Additionally, its important to acknowledge that recovery isn’t going to happen at the same pace throughout Cedar Rapids, and explore why that is.

“If we are going to build a community that is stronger and is well connected and well integrated, it needs to take into account all of its residents,” Tilahun said. “It needs to take into account all of the barriers that the residents are facing, so that an equitable plan is in place because needs are different in every quadrant of the city.”