Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Recent Storm

We recently had a major storm roll across Iowa, and by storm I mean it was basically an inland hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph. The folks on the east coast know what a hurricane does, but Iowa is about as land-locked as you can get. We deal with tornadoes every year; they blow through and leave a swath of destruction a few hundred yards wide and a few miles long. This storm, though -- the weather people are calling it a “derecho” -- was 60 miles wide and rampaged across almost 200 miles of the state. Tornadoes have rotating winds between 100-300 mph and pass in a few minutes, but this storm had straight-line winds of 70-130 mph sustained for at least 30 minutes. If you look online you can see the damage in satellite photos, it's that wide-spread.

10 million acres of crops were leveled; that's about 40% of the farm land in the state. Storage facilities were damaged or destroyed over a quarter of the state. Numbers are still being compiled, but I've seen estimates of between 20 and 30% of the storage capacity is just gone. My local Co-op has 62 locations around the state, and 24 of them are damaged or destroyed. Demolition crews are trying to clear debris and overhead hazards so the workers can try to salvage over a million bushels of grain that's sitting on the ground, and that's for just the one Co-op that I have contact with; there are dozens more in Iowa.

We're less than 45 days from the start of a normal harvest season, and it looks like it's going to be a tie between the destroyed crops and lack of places to store grain in a lot of places. It's been about 10 days, and there are still people without electricity trying to clean up their neighborhoods. Buildings and trees took a beating and there is debris still scattered in a lot of places. City services are minimal in some areas, water and waste treatment takes electricity, and generators aren't common for small town municipal plants.

I live outside the area that got blasted, so I get the opportunity to watch as others deal with this disaster. I hope to learn from the mistakes of others and get myself and my stuff ready for the time when I'm not so lucky. We had a nasty thunderstorm (over an inch of rain in 30 minutes and strong winds gusting over 70 mph) but sustained little damage. Some tree limbs went down, and a few windows popped out of their frames in one building at work, but nothing serious happened. Metal grain bins are built to handle gusts of up to 90 mph when empty (once they're full they're even stronger), so we didn't lose any around me.

Concrete silos are weather-proof, but are more prone to dust explosions and much more expensive to build. Look at the pictures of the aftermath of the massive explosion in Beruit, Lebanon for proof of the strength of concrete grain silos: half of the large elevator that was right next to the blast survived and shielded the buildings behind it.

What I've seen and learned so far:
  • “Iowa nice” is a thing. No one is looting after a disaster, and people are helping each other all over the state.
  • Opportunists are everywhere. People are buying $300 portable generators and selling them for twice that. They're also being called out for their price-gouging, and pubic shaming still works in small towns.
  • Small engines, like portable generators, don't like gasoline with ethanol in it. Since Iowa is a major producer of ethanol for the petroleum industry, it can be a challenge to find “pure” gas for your generators. In less than 24 hours someone set up a website to track the availability of “pure” gas in some of the cities that got hit the hardest.
  • Having an “all electric” house is a mistake. You might get a slight discount from the power company, but you end up without any way to heat water or cook your food if you don't have some redundancy. Personally, I hate cooking on electric stoves and will always use gas (LP or natural gas). The “Iowa nice” has kicked in here as neighbors are letting others into their houses to cook, or are cooking for those with all electric appliances.
  • People with no experience in farming sound like total idiots when they try to report the news. Okay, they sound like more of an idiot than they normally do.
  • Yes, most farmers have crop insurance, but in order to file a claim they have to harvest as much as they can and the insurance company will pay for the “lost” portion of yield. Harvesting corn that has fallen over takes special equipment that is neither common nor cheap, and it tends to plug up more often than a standard head, requiring a lot more time and effort and exposing workers to a lot more risk. We're going to have more injuries and deaths this harvest than normal.
  • The crops that are still standing are hiding debris that will only be found once the combines hit the fields. More delays and equipment damage is likely when those million-dollar machines try to ingest a chunk of roofing or siding.
  • Roads were cleared within a few hours of the storm. Residents did not wait for the government to take care of it, and instead they brought out their own chainsaws and tractors and got to work once the electric company got the downed power lines out of the way. I saw pictures of everything from snowplows on ATVs to full-size construction equipment being put to use before the government at any level had even finished their coffee.
  • Iowa produces about 15% of the corn grown in the US, and half of that was destroyed. Expect higher food prices this winter as the shortage trickles through the economy. Losing 7% of the production of anything will have ripple effects.

The main thing that I've seen so far is the most basic: Life goes on. Even after a damaging storm, people keep going. Let's try to be ready to keep going as best we can, no matter what life throws at us.

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