Hawkeye Elegy: A collision of pandemic, disaster, and polarization in the heartland

Last summer a monster storm tore across Iowa, leaving billions of dollars damage in its wake. It was a brutal blow to an economy already reeling from a deadly pandemic and a state divided by politics like never before.
February 4, 2021 10:30 AM UTC
A drone’s-eye view of the damage to bins at the Heartland Co-Op grain elevator in Luther, Iowa, on Aug. 11, the day after the derecho.
Daniel Acker—Getty Images

A grant from the NIHCM Foundation generously helped fund reporting for this story.

The weather report showed a slight risk of thunderstorms, and in the early hours of Aug. 10, Justin Glisan, Iowa’s state climatologist, was feeling hopeful about that. The land was dry and crying out for a good soak. On a call with field agronomists that morning, he’d exchanged wishes that the storm line making its way across Nebraska would hold together over Iowa. 

Despite coming off two of the state’s wettest years on record and ideal planting conditions in the spring, the summer months had been warm and windy, and by August, severe drought had taken hold in West Central Iowa. Glisan is attached to Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and on field visits, he had observed the telltale signs that crops were experiencing physiological stress: The corn had started to “fire,” its lower leaves turning a brittle yellow as the plant shut down to conserve water; the leaves of soybeans, meanwhile, were flipping during the day to keep in what moisture they could.

All summer long, Glisan had watched storms approach the region, and just fizzle out as they hit dry air. The state’s farmland desperately needed rain.

Before he became state climatologist in 2018, Glisan worked as a research atmospheric scientist at Iowa State University, building regional climate models and studying the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere. Every day, he thought about the acts of Mother Nature in terms of systems and parameters.

But nothing—not that work, not his Ph.D. and two meteorology degrees, nor his storm-chasing experience in the Midwest—prepared him for what so suddenly materialized over Iowa that day. He saw it coming from the deck of his Des Moines home, a wall of dark-as-night clouds that sent him scuttling to his basement. He was only halfway there when a tree limb hit his house and ripped out a gas main. The security alarm went off the moment he lost power—precisely four seconds past 11 a.m.

The backyard of a home in Cedar Rapids damaged by the derecho. Designated as a “Tree City USA,” Cedar Rapids lost an estimated 65% of its canopy in the storm.
Joseph Cress—Iowa City Press- Citizen/USA Today Network/Reuters

Over the course of the next two hours, the “monster” storm Glisan witnessed ripped across the state of Iowa with increasing intensity and devastation, leaving in its wake felled trees, downed power lines, overturned semis, crumpled grain bins, flattened crops, and mangled homes and businesses. By the time the storm petered out in Ohio, at the end of its 14-hour, 770-mile run, it had caused some $11 billion in damage, making it the most costly thunderstorm in American history, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At its peak, the wind gusts that day are thought to have exceeded 140 miles per hour in Iowa, such an anomaly in the middle of the country that NASA and Glisan are studying photos of damage to make sense of the storm.

Even in a state full of weather-conscious farmers, the event—which many Iowans still describe as an “inland hurricane”—seemed completely alien and unworldly, like nothing they’d seen before. In fact, it was a derecho (pronounced deh-REY-cho), a term coined in the 1880s by Iowa’s first official weather observer, Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs. A cantankerous, polymathic professor who had a hand in developing the periodic table, Hinrichs believed there should be a term to distinguish Iowa’s straight-line wind events from rotational ones (a.k.a., tornadoes). He settled on the Spanish term “derecho” (meaning “straight”), which is defined today as a windstorm that travels at least 240 miles with sustained winds over 58 mph. Though such storms occur about every two years in Iowa, the term was not widely known in the state. Even DuWayne Tewes, the veteran disaster coordinator based in FEMA’s Kansas City office who led the agency’s response in Iowa, conceded he’d never heard the term before.

Tornadoes are of course the common disaster of the plains—terrifying and devastating, but short-lived and limited in their path of destruction. Derechos tend to be longer and more sweeping affairs, and this one was especially so. The storm essentially traveled due east along Highway 30—the old Lincoln Highway—and Interstate 80, cutting a swath of the state 90 miles wide that includes valuable farmland, a handful of meatpacking towns, Iowa’s two largest university campuses (Ames and Iowa City), and Iowa’s two largest cities (Des Moines and Cedar Rapids).

They were all caught, like Glisan, more or less unprepared. Derechos are especially complex, impromptu storm systems, making them hard to forecast with much lead time. Most impacted Iowans started their day with a standard August weather report and went about their activities, with no inkling that they’d have to shelter from 100 mph winds in a few hours, let alone live a week or more without power.

Ben Olson, a fourth-generation farmer in Benton County, was out hauling manure; Willie Fairley, a Cedar Rapids restaurateur was picking up supplies for his rib shack; Steve Shriver, a Cedar Rapids business owner, was grabbing lunch with his mom; Maria Gonzalez, a social worker in Marshalltown had just gone out with her dog, and her husband had run to the bank.

Father Craig Steimel, the pastor at five Catholic parishes in rural Benton Country, returned from running errands in the Cedar Rapids area just as the sky turned dark. His home in Norway is adjacent to St. Michael’s Church, and the next thing he knew a garbage can flew by his window and then St. Michael’s 110-foot, 140-year-old steeple landed in his yard. As the storm raged for another 30 minutes, he wondered if his house would collapse. Would the church blow over? “It was just ungodly,” he says.

$11 billion

Estimated total damage across the Midwest caused by the derecho—the most costly thunderstorm in U.S. history

The storm was a trauma. But it was also more than that. It was a collision of disasters—this extreme weather event hit America’s heartland in the middle of an economy-bruising pandemic and a summer of bitter polarization. For many, the derecho layered on more hardship and stress when they could least afford it. For local health officials, the storm complicated the already challenging task of managing a raging virus. For leaders, it piled another few Jenga pieces on the COVID-19 socioeconomic balancing act.

It’s not fair to reduce Iowa’s very real disasters to symbol, but on Aug. 10, with its flattened fields and exploded barns, Iowa looked like America felt.

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When the rest of the country thinks of Iowa, they almost certainly conjure up long, flat stretches of cornfields and farms; flyover country populated almost exclusively by white people. But the state today is far more complex and diverse than the old stereotype suggests—like anywhere in America, it’s a place in flux, full of tensions and contradictions. 

One of the nation’s top producers of corn, hogs, and soybeans, Iowa’s economy remains driven by agriculture and related manufacturing. But as those industries have shed labor, Iowa’s growth has shifted to more populated urban areas, powered by sectors like banking, insurance, business services, and health care.

Iowa has one of the nation’s highest labor participation rates—it’s a quirk of the Plains states that many middle-aged and older women work—but there aren’t enough job opportunities to match the number of highly skilled workers the state supplies. Indeed, Iowa exports a lot of the talent it develops. “We educate the hell out of Iowans,” says Dave Swenson, an economist with Iowa State University. “But the way our economy is configured with its heavy loading, production, manufacturing, and agriculture—all of that talent we educate, we can’t use it.”

Over the past decade, 70 of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population. That includes many rural counties but also—and more troubling, says Swenson—the semi-urban ones that are home to “micropolitans,” the manufacturing-dependent cities of 10,000 to 50,000 that have been shedding jobs and now have physical footprints larger than their economies. It’s a dynamic that plays into the state’s deepening urban and rural divide, which has been increasingly visible in the traditionally purple state’s politics. In 2016 and 2020, Iowa supported Trump, but in 2020, more of that vote was in rural parts of the state. As is the case across the country, Iowa’s red communities have gotten redder, and its blue communities bluer. At a high level, red is winning: Today, Iowa’s governor, both of its senators, and three of its four representatives in Congress are Republican.

Going into 2020, Iowa’s overall economy was flat. “It wasn’t growing at all,” says Swenson. Unemployment spiked like it did everywhere at the start of the pandemic but has since fallen to 3.6%. Swenson says that’s less good news than it appears: Iowa didn’t gain jobs during the year, it lost workforce. Swenson suspects the dropouts are largely women shouldering childcare responsibilities or people who retired early for pandemic-related safety concerns.

Not surprisingly, how Iowans weathered the past year and all of its unanticipated catastrophes depends on where you look and whom you ask. And so this accounting is a mosaic of many different individual stories, told as the derecho blew, from west to east.

The picture it reveals, while distinctly Iowan in some ways, is one that, from a distance, looks fundamentally American in 2021. It reveals a society struggling to grapple with a series of complex, interlocking issues at once—a novel coronavirus and climate change; an economy and demography in flux; a public bitterly polarized by politics. Sitting as it does in the geographic middle of the U.S., Iowa functions naturally as a microcosm of the broader nation. And the questions it’s wrestling with echo those at the heart of our current circumstances: How do you balance public health and the economy? Personal freedom and the greater good? Fear and science with blind certainty and belief?

In short, what can Iowa show us about our way forward?

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Like many people, I spent a lot of 2020 worrying. Catastrophizing is something I’ve always been good at, and so early last year, when the esteemed infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm told me that he expected a novel coronavirus in China to spread like the wind, my mind instantly went to my parents, both of whom are in their seventies and one a lifelong smoker, in Cedar Rapids.

When I told my colleagues I was worried about my parents getting the virus, they chuckled. In Iowa? That’s the safest place you could be. This was the frenzied month of February when we lacked such imagination that the U.S. government was spending millions to evacuate American citizens from foreign countries, as if one could outrun the virus and that U.S. borders would protect them. 

The coronavirus did of course reach Iowa. The first known cases were in early March—an adventurous group of senior travelers had contracted it in Egypt while on a Nile cruise—though it was probably spreading in the Hawkeye State already.

In the beginning, Iowa reacted to the coronavirus like much of the country, with the abrupt closure of schools, theaters, churches, bars, indoor dining, barbers, and tanning salons. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a conservative Republican in her fourth year on the job, issued a state public health emergency because of the virus on March 17. But she did not issue a shelter-in-place order, one of the few governors to not do so, leaving Iowa more open for business than most states.

I sent my parents N95 masks as well as a pulse oximeter, which I asked them to use regularly with the strong, and surely annoying, suggestion that they report their readings back to me. (They didn’t.) We did weekly Zooms, which lifted spirits and provided some peace of mind.  

Iowa, with a population of 3.2 million, is not a particularly dense state—it ranks 35th in the U.S. in density. But in the early weeks of the pandemic, the state had an alarming number of cases, most of them linked to meatpacking plants and nursing homes. The virus was hitting the essential and the infirm. “The tradeoff in Iowa was we were more than willing to maintain our economy, at the expense of the health and well-being of our workforce,” says Swenson, the Iowa State economist.

That Faustian deal led to community spread and punished other businesses too. Ben Olson, the farmer in Benton County, had 200 beef cattle lined up, ready for delivery at a nearby Tyson plant on March 31. Together they represented hundreds of thousands of dollars and the seven-month investment in raising them from 800 pounds to their precisely desired sale weight—1,500 pounds. He got a call 12 hours before go time: There was an outbreak at the plant; he’d have to wait. The same thing happened two weeks later. He sold his oversize cattle a month late, for a bad price. Pig farmers across the state faced similar dilemmas; some, with no market for their hogs, had to euthanize them.

The state’s curve hadn’t flattened much before Iowa reopened in mid-May, and since then the picture has gotten much, much worse. There were plenty of things, brought to light by local media and the public health community, that did not inspire great confidence in the state’s response—like, for instance, the fact that the state’s main testing infrastructure was provided by an inexperienced Utah startup that won a no-bid contract seemingly due to its connections to Ashton Kutcher, Iowa’s favorite celebrity son.

Most of all, Reynolds was absolutely insistent, press conference after press conference, that the best approach to the pandemic was to put it in Iowans’ responsible hands. The state didn’t need to order its citizens about what to do because she trusted them to do the right thing. She wouldn’t issue a mask mandate, nor would she give mayors in her state the power to do so.

At the time, my father was still holding out hope that there would be Iowa football games to attend in the fall, and the prospect of him in a stadium with the mask-less masses was among my worst COVID fears at the time.

Then, in the middle of the afternoon on Aug. 10, my mom sent a group text that began, “We are safe [prayer hands emoji] …” There was a series of photos that were barely recognizable as their backyard. “Tornado!?” My sister texted. My brother, who lives a block away from my parents, wrote “land hurricane.” They didn’t have the power or cell reception to communicate much beyond that, and for the next 48 hours it was as if Cedar Rapids had been blown off the face of the earth.

There were a few video clips of the intense storm circulating on social media, but it was hard to find much news on what had happened beyond mention of a wind event in Chicago. Cedar Rapids hadn’t been blown off the map exactly, but it, along with hundreds of other communities, had blown off the grid.

All of the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area, some 132,000 people, lost power in the storm. (Across the state, 680,000 customers did.) With cell towers toppled, some lost communications too. For a 51-hour period, St. Luke’s Hospital, one of two medical centers in downtown Cedar Rapids, was a complete island—losing Internet, electronic medical records, the landline, and service from all three of Cedar Rapids’ cell carriers. At the same time, Eastern Iowans who had been injured in the storm or debris-cleaning efforts were pouring into the emergency room. The hospital saw twice its normal volume in the 24 hours after the derecho. “It was probably the scariest time I’ve had as a hospital administrator,” the hospital’s President and CEO, Michelle Niermann of UnityPoint Cedar Rapids, tells me.

The Quaker Oats plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When the derecho hit on Aug. 10, 2020, the entire Cedar Rapids metropolitan area lost power and many lost all communications, too.
Danny Wilcox-Frazier—VII/Redux

Assessing the scope of the damage was especially challenging in Cedar Rapids, which—beyond the loss of power and communications—was initially almost untraversable because of all the debris and fallen trees. (As a “Tree City USA,” Cedar Rapids a lost an estimated 65% of its canopy in the storm.)

It’s hard not to think of the derecho as a blatant spectacle of climate change, particularly when the city it hit hardest, Cedar Rapids, is not long recovered from the freak 500-year flood that destroyed much of its downtown and a good chunk of its affordable housing in 2008.  

As climatologist Glisan told me, it’s difficult to link a single extreme weather event to climate change. But there’s plenty of subtle evidence that Iowa’s weather is changing and increasing the odds of damaging storms like the derecho. Much of Glisan’s job is helping farmers adapt to that reality—like preparing for more frequent heavy rainfall. (The probability of receiving more than three inches of rain in a 24-hour period in Iowa has tripled over the historical rate in the past 30 years.)

In the 2020 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, 81% of farmers said they believe climate change is occurring, up from 68% in 2011. That’s a much greater percentage than across Iowa’s general public, of whom 67% believe global warming is happening. (The rate is 72% nationally.)

I didn’t get to speak much to my parents during the 10 days they were in the dark, dealing with the derecho. Most attempts to call were met with understandable frustration about draining their phone battery. I know it was tough on them. My mom is still sometimes moved to tears when she talks about the volunteers—friends, family, and total strangers—who came with their chain saws to help them out. My family was lucky in that the trees that fell on their houses did not cause significant damage. My parents got a new roof, which was covered by insurance; my brother will get one in the spring.

I got the sense from them and others in Cedar Rapids, and I felt it myself when I visited in December, that one of the hardest things post-derecho was inhabiting a world of such obvious and inescapable physical loss, as if the landscape were reflecting their whole year’s experience back at them.

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The derecho wreaked havoc everywhere it hit. In Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), 30 miles north of Des Moines, the storm peeled the roof off the four-floor Madrid Home, a senior living center, where six coronavirus patients were in isolation and receiving treatment on the facility’s top floor. Kris Hansen, CEO of Western Home Communities, which runs the site, was in a virtual meeting when he got the panicked call from his executive director in Madrid. 

For Hansen, who was an hour to the northeast, in a part of the state where skies were still clear, it was an unthinkable twist. With 10 senior-living communities in the state of Iowa, the pandemic had been a real test for Western Home—for all the reasons familiar to long-term-care facilities across the country (a lack of PPE, a shortage of workers), and for reasons more specific to Iowa. 

“I got frustrated with the governor a few times for not coming out stronger with a mask mandate,” he says, adding that it felt like the state had chosen the economy over protecting seniors. “Why would we put anybody at risk if we don’t have to? Our employees are still out in the community. They don’t have a choice.”

Western Home effectively guarded its sites against a COVID-19 outbreak until late July, when it experienced its first one in Madrid. The virus had slipped in during a visit from one of the facility’s contracted therapists. Over the course of a few days, six patients and three staff on the home’s first floor tested positive for COVID. It was tough on morale. “They were beating themselves up because they felt like they had failed,” says Hansen, who, like other health and long-term-care providers across the country, has been contending with a serious shortage of workers.

The fall brought scary and unspeakable tragedy to some of Western Home’s properties. The company had some managed-care facilities where nearly 100% of residents tested positive, and where workers, also positive, took care of them. “It just scares the crap out of you,” he tells me. “[My employees] have got families too.” The biggest challenge has been controlling the virus in dementia units. At one small facility in Cresco, Iowa, eight of 24 residents were lost to COVID. “We see what the results of this are,” he says of the state’s lax approach to the virus.

When I spoke with Hansen in mid-January, his staff and residents were still awaiting vaccines. Says Hansen: “It’s not rolling out nearly as fast as we had hoped.” He didn’t blame the state but the federal government, which is running the rollout in long-term-care facilities with the private sector. “It’s just not well-coordinated enough. We’ve got folks, quite honestly, that are going to die because of this, because of exposure that continues on.” 

Anti-mask protesters inside the rotunda of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Jan. 11, 2021.
Kelsey Kremer—The Register/USA Today Network/Reuters

Hansen remains frustrated by the dynamics around the virus in Iowa. He noted that the day before we talked there had been an “Informed Choice Iowa” rally involving hundreds of unmasked Iowans in the rotunda of the Iowa state house (where state legislators are not required to wear masks, and many don’t). The group was calling for an end to COVID mandates. “I don’t know what happened to common sense in the middle of this whole pandemic,” says Hansen. “It’s just crap that this thing turned out to be as political as it did.”

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Naturally, I didn’t stop worrying about COVID when the derecho hit. I worried more. As Iowans will tell you, they come together in disasters. I imagined the virus spreading with all the goodwill. 

Cedar Rapids did see cases peak slightly after the derecho and the immediate recovery, says St. Luke’s Hospital’s Niermann, but the situation wasn’t as bad as she feared it would be. “Masking went way down,” she told me. “Honestly, people had to work on a different level of hierarchy of needs.”

Far worse was yet to come. For much of the fall, Iowa was one of the nation’s COVID chart-toppers. The virus was everywhere, hitting rural counties especially hard. Despite growing cries from the public health community to do more, Gov. Reynolds again just asked Iowans to be responsible. As the curve climbed, the governor herself appeared on stage with President Trump and without a mask at an outdoor rally attended by thousands of his supporters in Des Moines.

In November, health facilities around the state began announcing that they were at or near capacity—they lacked either the staff or beds to handle more COVID patients. The governor responded with a set of complicated rules aimed at controlling the spread: no more than two spectators per child at an athletic event; face coverings should be worn at indoor gatherings of 25 or more, or outdoor gatherings of over 100. Finally, the week before Thanksgiving, Reynolds, in a tone that begged forgiveness—“No one wants to do this … I don’t want to do this”—issued a statewide mask mandate, albeit one with some exceptions

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The mask rule couldn’t have come soon enough for Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer. A lawyer by day, Greer had watched COVID stress his community since early spring. Marshalltown, a city of 28,000 smack dab in the middle of Iowa, is a meatpacking town, and like other Iowa cities it had had an early outbreak at its pork processing facility and largest employer, JBS. Dozens tested positive for the virus in April, and one local employee died a week before retirement in May.

It had just gone on from there. For Greer, it was a source of frustration and heartbreak that his county had at times been one of the most hard-hit in Iowa, while Iowa was one of the most hard-hit states in the country. 

Greer Zoomed periodically with a group of mayors in central Iowa. Many wanted to issue mask mandates, something they technically didn’t have power to do. Some went ahead with it anyway. Unwilling to exceed his legal authority, Greer issued a mayoral proclamation requiring face coverings, with the caveat it couldn’t be enforced. It didn’t really catch on.

In October, Greer walked into a local bar to pick up a takeout order. The place was crowded, and while the staff were wearing masks, he was the only customer wearing one. The other patrons began making derogatory comments about him and questioning his manhood. “These people, they must have flunked science,” Greer tells me. “They just don’t get it.”

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Service workers in Marshalltown were among those who paid the price for the divide over mask-wearing. Alfonso Medina, the 31-year-old proprietor of La Carreta Mexican Grill, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant in the city, came down with COVID during the last week of November. He lost his sense of taste and smell, a symptom that, by that point in the year, he estimates 80% to 90% of his 17-person staff had already experienced. Since March, his team had tried to distance in the restaurant and take precautions. They had worn masks, but few customers did.

“It was very frustrating that customers didn’t have to wear them because it was almost causing this, to a point,” Medina told me in early January. “We could all be wearing masks, but we knew it’s just a matter of time before someone gets sick.” 

Restaurateur Alfonso Medina’s slogan, “No love, no tacos,” went viral in October.
Danny Wilcox-Frazier—VII/Redux

While a couple of big-box stores in Marshalltown—Menards and Walmart—started requiring face coverings early in the pandemic, without a state mandate and as a minority-owned business, Medina thought it would be difficult to enforce a mask policy at La Carreta. His employees, particularly those in high school who worked part-time, weren’t comfortable confronting customers. He wished his patrons would just be responsible. “If you’re coming here to eat because this is your favorite restaurant, why wouldn’t you just wear one?” (Since the governor issued the statewide mandate, he says, almost everyone wears them.)

Medina prayed his staff wouldn’t all get sick at once and require him to shut down. The restaurant has actually done very well during the pandemic—he credits takeout alcohol sales for the fact that La Carreta had its best-ever Cinco de Mayo in 2020. And Medina says he was lucky to have gotten the virus himself during the quiet Thanksgiving week, at a time when his business could handle his 10-day absence. 

Most of his employees had mild cases like his, and all eventually recovered, but nearly everyone on his team has lost someone to COVID: Medina’s 52-year-old uncle in Ohio; his parents’ 30-year-old physician in Mexico; his chef’s father; the grandfather of two servers; loyal customers. “Death has been all around us,” he says. 

1.34 million cubic yards

Amount of storm debris hauled away by debris management companies in Iowa since the derecho

Medina was born in Roanoke, Va., and he spent his early childhood traveling around the country with his parents, immigrants from Mexico, as they built a growing business of Tex-Mex restaurants. They arrived in Iowa when he was 5 years old and later moved to Marshalltown, which he loved for its diversity, the good education he got, and the kindness of people generally. “It was a good place to grow up. You know, ‘Iowa nice,’ you really do see that,” he says. 

When the pandemic began, Medina noticed many high-demand items—sanitizer, rice and beans, toilet paper—were available from his bulk suppliers. He made large orders and started reselling things locally; at one point, he was providing local nursing homes with gloves. Throughout the pandemic, he’s donated staples for local food-drive efforts and organized fundraisers for families who have lost members to COVID.

But Medina is probably best known for a slogan—“No love, no tacos”—that he promoted on a billboard in front of his restaurant, and on merchandise this fall. After the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black citizens by police last summer, Medina felt a responsibility to use his platform as a local business owner to be vocal about his values. He experimented on social media and got good feedback, so he placed a yard sign in front of La Carreta. It had, what seemed to him, nuggets of unimpeachable common sense: “Black lives matter”; “Human rights are women’s rights”; “Science is real.” But the sign prompted an angry, handwritten note on a receipt one day; the customer called the sign un-Christian. Medina posted a photo of the receipt on his personal Facebook page with his own note: “No love, no tacos.” He also set up a website and online clothing store under that banner, advocating for fairness and equality and that Election Day be made a federal holiday to ensure all can vote. Profits from the site went to a local scholarship fund Medina had previously established.

These people, they must have flunked science. They just don’t get it.

Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer discussing citizens who won’t wear face masks

As things do, his message went viral, especially after he was featured by CNN in October in the run-up to the election. Orders for “No love, no tacos” hats and shirts poured in from around the world, and as people posted photos of themselves voting in November, many hashtagged them, #NoLoveNoTacos. The effort funded 14 scholarships to Marshalltown’s community college.

Medina says he received at least one letter that was far nastier than the note that had kicked off everything. I asked him if COVID and the current political climate had made Iowa less nice. He said he and his employees don’t talk politics in the restaurant for a reason.

“There’s people in Marshalltown with way different points of view, and I respect everybody’s point of view,” he says. “I have clientele here that have different party affiliations than mine. They walk in with whatever gear or whatever their shirt says, and I tell my employees, ‘We give them the same five-star service as anybody else.’”

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Mayor Greer has found that type of neutral ground increasingly hard to preserve. He laments how politicized the pandemic has become in his city. He’s taken heat over COVID—in emails, texts, and a whole lot of comments lobbed at his mayoral Facebook page—from both sides. “Half the people are mad as hell that school’s in session, the other half are mad that it’s not. It’s been pretty ugly,” he says. 

Three years in, Greer’s tenure has involved dealing with one catastrophe after another in Marshalltown. One July day in 2018 a tornado literally traveled down Main Street, felling the courthouse’s clock tower and ransacking the historic district and downtown businesses, before damaging a number of homes in one of Marshalltown’s low-income neighborhoods. That made the derecho a surreal and especially cruel sequel of sorts.

Much of the burden of responding to these disasters has fallen on the shoulders of Kimberly Elder, emergency management coordinator for Marshall County. She’s been in her role since 2003, and every year, it seems, there are more disasters and fewer resources to deal with them. For much of 2020, she worked out of an office full of boxes. Some of them are filled with PPE, the county’s stockpile that she herself distributes to nursing homes and emergency responders. Others are file boxes, brimming with paperwork—the long tail of administrative business that follows a disaster. Elder hasn’t had a vacation in more than two years, and, as a one-woman shop, her biggest fear is getting sick with COVID. Says Elder: “If I’m in the hospital, like some of these people are, what are they going to do?”

Kimberly Elder, the emergency management coordinator for Marshall County, is a one-woman disaster relief department.
Danny Wilcox-Frazier—VII/Redux

Elder isn’t the only one mired in the process of recovery.

Some in the community have struggled more than others to get timely relief from insurers and state agencies. As Iowa cities go, Marshalltown is uniquely diverse, with a population that is 30% Hispanic, according to recent census data. Students in the Marshalltown school district are native speakers of more than 40 different languages; kindergartners in the district are 70% nonwhite. The meatpacking plant helped give rise to this multiculturalism because its jobs have drawn different populations to the city over time, including most recently Burmese and Congolese refugees.

In navigating the recovery process, language barriers are one issue; the other is time. The city’s immigrant population makes up a large part of Marshalltown’s essential workforce, employed in jobs that often don’t offer flexibility to deal with things like lining up an insurance adjuster.

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For some on the Meskwaki Settlement, the 8,000 acres of Tama County that is home to the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa—east of Marshalltown—displacement because of the derecho came with another brutal cost: COVID.

Iowa’s only federally recognized tribe, the Meskwaki purchased the land in 1857 after resisting banishment by the federal government to a reservation in Kansas. Over the years the tribe expanded its holdings, and the settlement, where 1,200 or so tribal members currently reside, has its own health clinic, court, and school. In 1992 the Meskwaki opened a hotel and casino on the property—advertised as having “the loosest slots in Iowa”—which today provides about 70% of funding for tribal operations.

The derecho damaged 271 of the settlement’s 350 homes, and in the storm’s aftermath, the generator-powered hotel was the obvious place for those affected to go. Seven hundred tribal members “jam-packed” into the hotel, some five or six to a room, says Lawrence SpottedBird, the settlement’s executive director. People found themselves in proximity to people from whom they’d been socially distanced for months. 

“We were interacting more closely and working more closely,” says SpottedBird. “We had to drop our guard to do that. The result was our cases spiked.”

The settlement, in some ways, had taken an opposite approach to the state’s in handling the pandemic. Rudy Papakee, health director at Meskwaki Tribal Health Clinic, learned of the community’s first COVID case in March. A tribal member had sought care at a hospital for breathing problems and tested positive for the virus. Soon the individual’s family members and their contacts did too. Several of the cases were severe, involving hospitalizations, and one elder who contracted the virus died.

Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer (at left, in suit) with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (in jeans). The governor didn’t issue a mask mandate until late in 2020.
Olivia Sun—The Register/USA Today Network/Reuters

“We were a little epicenter, at first,” says Papakee. He knew many in the population were vulnerable, either as elders or individuals with health conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, that put them at greater risk. Tribal leadership responded almost immediately with a shelter-in place order, shuttering the casino and other operations on the settlement. They continued to pay employees and asked them to stay home. They had a robust and accessible testing infrastructure, thanks to the Indian Health Service. When the tribe opened back up in early summer, it did so conservatively: It required face masks in public and canceled the annual powwow and other culturally important ceremonial gatherings.

But there were limitations to the effort. Many of the settlement’s residents work in nearby towns like Tama, Toledo, and Marshalltown, and everyone has to leave the settlement to get groceries and other supplies. The Meskwaki’s efforts to stop the spread of the virus could only be as good as the efforts in those surrounding communities.

“The state of Iowa was one of those states that didn’t take the virus too seriously,” says SpottedBird, who moved from Seattle to take his job in May (he’s not a tribal member). “So safeguards were kind of lackadaisical, loose, and people were generally not wearing masks for a long time.”

Like many health professionals in the state, Papakee has been frustrated greatly by Gov. Reynolds’s response to the pandemic. He would tune into her press conferences on the virus only to be dismayed each time by her continuing insistence that she trusted Iowans to make the right decisions. “Obviously you could not, because our numbers continued to soar,” he says.

He admits some of the same challenges exist on the settlement; there are those in the community who bristle at being required to wear masks or being told how to conduct their social lives. At one Christmas gathering on the settlement, a single person exposed 25 others. The casino, which provides the tribe with important revenue, reopened in July with a new nonsmoking policy, temperature checks, and masking and social distance requirements—a combination of measures that Papakee says have been effective but not perfect.

Vaccinations have started on the settlement, but Papakee had no idea when the next shipment was showing up, making things hard to plan. The community’s elders were anxiously awaiting their turn.

Reflecting trends seen across the country with Native American populations, the Meskwaki have been more impacted by the virus than other groups. When I spoke with Papakee, roughly a quarter of the settlement’s tribal population—301 people—had so far tested positive for COVID; five had succumbed to the virus.

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Outside the settlement, Shannon Zoffka, CEO of Tama County Public Health and Home Care, leads the area’s pandemic response. She has lived in the small, rural county of 17,000 all her life, but the past year has been eye-opening. “There’s definitely a large percent of the population in the county that don’t believe in masks. They think that the vaccine is unsafe; they think that COVID is a hoax,” Zoffka tells me one afternoon in early January.

That resistance to reality persists despite the county’s nursing home and meatpacking plant outbreaks, and the fact that Tama ranks in the top 4% of counties nationally in deaths per capita due to COVID. There was also a spike in cases after the derecho; the county had made community meals and cooling stations available to residents during the weeklong period they—and Tama County Public Health—went without power, making cases especially complicated to trace.

But things got really ugly at the start of the school year, as quarantines that were prescribed after known COVID-19 exposures started to affect sports. “People were very angry,” says Zoffka, who says her office’s attempts to investigate contacts or inform people of exposures to the virus were often met with verbal abuse. “People think they have the right to call you names and yell and scream and threaten.”

Soon she noticed people taking a different but equally bad-faith approach to her office’s outreach. “People got smart very fast when the definition of a close contact changed to being within six feet of someone for consecutive 15 minutes.” People said to the case investigators, “Well, you don’t have a tape measure or a stopwatch. You don’t know.” Or: “You can’t prove that we were there.”

While Zoffka’s team has had good support from partners like the school system, local business, law enforcement, and the Meskwaki Settlement, such attitude from community members was a disillusioning blow: “I don’t think we expected that early on. Our thought was, ‘We want to keep people safe. People want to keep other people safe.’ But then once [public health efforts] really affected their personal lives after some of the restrictions have been lifted, it got kind of rough.”

People think they have the right to call you names and yell and scream and threaten.

One public health official trying to limit the spread of the virus

Given that, Zoffka says it was hard to stomach the governor’s continuing reliance on Iowans to “do the right thing” to control the virus. Beyond slowing the spread of disease, Zoffka says, a mask mandate would have supported businesses in the community who were trying to encourage safe behavior and often getting pushback.

In studying how the pandemic was playing out in Iowa—before I spoke with Zoffka—I had come across and become somewhat obsessed with Tama County Public Health’s Facebook page. The information was clear and the posts impressively transparent; the office regularly updated case numbers and explained why they were higher than the state’s (the state’s data was behind). Following the posts, you could also sense a growing, desperate pleading behind them: Wear a mask! Wash your hands! Protect your grandparents!

You only had to read the comments to get a sense of what the office was up against. While there were plenty of supportive and thankful followers, comments often enough devolved into heated arguments between citizens about why there were so many cases in the county. Others argued the whole thing was overblown.

Even though her team tries mightily to push out facts over their own Facebook page, Zoffka largely blames social media for the misinformation that has spread within the community about COVID, and for the harsh, bullying tone in which many discuss the virus, both online and increasingly in person. She expects hurt feelings and memories of the animosity that has emerged during COVID will linger, and that the doubters will remain. “I think people who don’t believe are never going to believe until they’re affected directly,” she says with some resignation.

When I spoke with Zoffka, her staff was working their way through administering its supply of Moderna vaccine doses. The logistics had been a challenge, particularly through the holidays, but it was going all right. She hasn’t had a lot of time to process what stage of the pandemic journey she’s in, or think much about the future. She’s just been responding—to questions about the virus, or the vaccine, or cases that need investigating, or all the other things that land on her desk. She’s hopeful that a lot of people will get vaccinated, and that maybe life will start inching its way back to normalcy by the end of the year. “I’ve kind of had it in my head that 2021 is going to be similar to 2020 in a lot of ways.”

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When the state climatologist Justin Glisan went out on his first trip to survey the derecho-impacted fields, the scene was staggering—acres and acres of corn blown flat, snapped off, or tipped so far over that it was not salvageable. Some of it had been further damaged by hail, shredded, as if it had taken on machine-gun fire.

“To stand in a field and to be able to look across it and realize I can see things I should not be able to see because the corn is just flat, it’s devastating” says Meaghan Anderson, a field agronomist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She choked up for a moment, then added, “I have a job where I get a paycheck every two weeks. I don’t put hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront to plant something in April and then hope that, come September or October, I can harvest it and make my money back. That’s an incredible show of faith.”

Farmers that were hit didn’t lose just crops but also a lot of their infrastructure—the expensive equipment, the barns and grain bins. “We’re going to be dealing with this for years to come,” says Anderson.

Scott and Jenni Birker on their farm near Garrison, Iowa. The couple were already struggling with the pandemic when the derecho destroyed their barn and damaged tractors.
Danny Wilcox-Frazier—VII/Redux

Crop and other insurance covered much of the damage, but many, like Jenni and Scott Birker, still faced significant losses in 2020 because of the compound effect of the pandemic and the derecho. In recent years, the couple, who live in Benton County and raise beef cattle, watched their margins slim to almost nothing. “I’ve changed from being a cowboy basically to being a businessman. We’re picking up pennies and nickels every day out here,” Scott says.

Cows belonging to farmers Jenni and Scott Birker on their farm in Benton County, Iowa. Already struggling with the effects of the pandemic, after the derecho in August of last year the Birkers had to sell cattle at a loss in October.
Danny Wilcox-Frazier—VII/Redux

But 2020 was a new type of challenge. Starting in February, with virus fears rattling markets, the Birkers weren’t able to secure their usual put option to ensure they covered the cost of their cattle. Then outbreaks started shuttering the state’s packing plants. Given the backlog of cattle waiting to be sold, the couple made the decision to modify their animals’ rations—“basically we put them on a 60-day diet”—to prolong the period before they took them to market. “We had to pay for that extra feed cost with no insurance on the cattle, which we thought was the right move at the time,” says Scott. “We didn’t have a clue what to do.”

And then the derecho hit. The Birkers lost their barn, chicken coop, miles of fence, and much of their corn crop, and had multiple tractors damaged. As they emerged from their basement after the storm, they found their five dozen chickens and laying hens scattered among the wreckage. Their cattle were all alive, but wandering free in the pasture. When they finally sold the cattle in October, it was for a loss. In all, it was a terrible year, but they have no plans to quit.

Heartbreak in the Heartland: Battered grain bins in the wake of an Aug. 10 derecho in Luther, Iowa.
Daniel Acker—Getty Images

Others have had it even worse. And Anderson and others worry about the potential for farm bankruptcies to come as well as mental health issues among the agricultural community. (She knows of one farmer who committed suicide after the derecho.) Ag giant Cargill does too; it has sponsored some of the work the ISU extension service is providing for farmers and their families.

The bleak outlook is far from universal. For those who managed to harvest their crops, or who lived in a part of the state that didn’t get hit by the derecho or drought, yields were good in 2020 and corn prices have risen nicely since summer. Federal assistance in the form of trade payments and COVID relief have provided a generous cushion and were a good part of the reason that farmer incomes, on average, increased in 2020.

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In Cedar Rapids, as elsewhere, the recovery continues. There is plenty of evidence—in the form of debris piles, dented fences, and tarped roofs—that the city is still being put back together. But mostly there’s great satisfaction in how the community came together and some lingering wonder at all they went through. The mayors of both Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown
touted big investment projects they have underway—developments that have nothing to do with rebuilding from disasters, but rather just boosting the strength of their cities.

Since the pandemic began, the state has recorded a total of 321,274 cases of COVID and 4,919 deaths due to the virus—ranking it eighth among states in terms of cases per capita, and 17th in terms of deaths per capita over the course of the pandemic. After Iowa’s scary, hospital-straining battle with the virus in November, the situation is much improved: The state’s case numbers have nose-dived. It might have been the mask mandate; it might have been Iowans being responsible.

A spokesperson for Governor Reynolds said in a statement: “The governor had a very targeted and balanced approach to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus was protecting lives, livelihoods, preserving hospital resources, and bringing kids back to school safely. A mask is one layer of protection and she emphasized all of them on a near daily basis.”

For those I interviewed, the new year has almost universally come with a sense of hope—because of the vaccine, or the rising price of corn, or the stronger community spirit, or just the turn of the calendar away from 2020.

My parents are fine. They’re thinking about new trees and alternative ways to provide shade in a yard that lacks them. Their pulse oximeter remains virtually untouched, in its box. And they got vaccinated for COVID as I was finishing this story. I still worry about them and the virus, but then I probably always will.

On Feb. 5, after this story’s publication, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced Iowa’s masking and social distancing requirements would be lifted, beginning on Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday.

A version of this article appears in the February/March 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Hawkeye elegy.”