Derecho: Straight Line to Iowa

As the yard waste collection worker approached our small, neat bundles of small tree branches tied up with twine, he just shook his head. He and his partner picked them up by the twine and tossed them in the truck. For a moment, I was afraid they would refuse to collect these relatively tiny remnants of the most devastating inland hurricane to smash Iowa in over a decade. It’s known as a derecho, which is Spanish for “straight line.” It refers to the straight-line winds which were clocked at well over 100 miles per hour on August 10, 2020.

The governor has requested federal aid. People died, many were injured, left homeless, and without power or means of communication for days which is extending to over a week now. Crops were ruined.

Trees and homes were ripped apart and scattered over the land. We knew when it ended that the cleanup job would be unimaginably hard. So that made the requirement to make tidy bundles of twigs festooned with twine all the more surreal. We and neighbors stacked the tree debris as neatly as we could in separate piles, never doubting that the city would understand that we were caught short. We just didn’t have time to stock up on twine in anticipation of a derecho.

The piles were left and so we thought, that’s understandable. The city was caught short as well. Then we heard that the reason they were left was that the bundles were not gift-wrapped.

So, we wrapped them up. It turns out it made the difference between allowing the piles of twigs to sit there and rot the grass underneath—or getting them collected.

It reminds me of a line from the movie Men in Black 2 in which the neurolyzed Agent K as the punctilious postmaster gently scolds a customer for failing to submit a “properly wrapped” parcel— “Brown paper and triple twist twine are the preferred media; thank you for your time.”

On August 10, 2020, the wind screamed like I’ve never heard it before. I made several trips to the basement in anticipation of a tornado, but we got something just as terrifying—the derecho. The power was off for a little over a couple of days. It took about a week before I got cell phone and internet access back. Thankfully, we were not injured and we had a roof over our heads.

Later in the week, we saw a long line of cars outside of a local hardware store—people waiting to buy $700 generators. Later that same afternoon, the power came back on. They’ll be ready next time.

Right after the storm stopped, I went out to get our mail (yes, the post person was out, believe it or not!). My jaw dropped when I noticed the fallen Maple tree in our front yard. We were lucky it didn’t fall on our house. I didn’t have a chainsaw. I cut it up with a 20-inch handsaw. My wife and I trimmed and stacked the remnants in our driveway. I didn’t think of triple twist twine at the time.

The last derecho I remember in Iowa was the Corn Belt derecho in 1998. I was an Assistant Professor in the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics Psychiatry Department. I remember pulling a tree branch off the roof of the house my wife and I had recently purchased. The streets were full of downed trees and in some cases were impassable. One of my colleagues called it a straight-line windstorm, the first time I’d ever heard of such a thing. I hoped I would never see such devastation again.

On the other hand, Iowans will make a straight-line comeback.

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