Iowan Nick Bergus remembers being forced to abandon the family sedan in the middle of a state park and trekking a half mile with his wife and daughter over fallen trees and broken branches. The scene left by the 2020 Midwest derecho was “apocalyptic,” he says.
Bergus and his family had left their Iowa City home for a hike at a state park near Cedar Rapids. It was a far cry from hiking in the Rocky Mountains, where the family had originally planned to vacation that week, but the pandemic had redirected their plans to spend the summer at home. Nevertheless, it was an excellent morning in Iowa for a hike, if not just a tad bit muggy.
It was also Aug. 10, 2020 — the date of the costliest thunderstorm event in U.S. history.
And like thousands of other Iowans, the storm known as a derecho caught the family completely off guard. Storm sirens began to wail in the distance.
“We may not have been as aware as we would have liked to have been of what the weather was, but but we were aware enough to turn around for our car at that point,” Bergus tells NPR. “And as we got back down to the beach, near where we parked the car, you could just see this wall of clouds, I mean it was spectacular.”
And then the gusts began. Buffeted by strong winds and blinded by the torrential rain, Bergus had to pull the car into a clearing.
They didn’t know it then, but in the Midwest, the event would become known as the “inland hurricane.” Events similar to it — but never at such magnitude — actually happen every few years. But before Aug. 10 last year, thousands of Iowans, Bergus included, had never heard of the Spanish-derived word “derecho” before.
According to the National Weather Service, a derecho is a long-lasting and widespread line of severe storms, associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. On Aug. 10, 2020, the sustained line of storms affected eight midwestern states. It covered 770 miles in 14 hours, leaving a trail of destruction, including four deaths, in their wake.
In Cedar Rapids, winds reached as high as 140 mph, the highest winds ever recorded during a derecho event — equivalent to a Category 3 or 4 hurricane.
The Bergus family was able to wait out the rest of the storm in a park ranger’s basement. But when they emerged to the sight of so many trees felled by the storm, Bergus quickly realized leaving with their car would not be an option.
The family had to abandon their car and pick their way through trees, fallen power lines, and across the paths of animals injured by the storm to meet Bergus’ parents who arrived to drive them back home. There, the damage only continued, and the true scope of the storm’s impact became more clear.
Two limbs from the maple tree in the yard had broken off and fell through their roof. They were without power for nearly five days. Carless and powerless, the family camped inside for the week.
“I just remember that first night, it was so quiet,” Bergus said. “Nobody was out, no cars, all the street lights were out. Nobody was running generators yet because I think everybody sort of assumed the power would kick back on.”
But Bergus says the damage to their home and the efforts to return to life as normal were small compared to what other Iowa families experienced. Some Iowans lost everything, many others faced food shortages, internet outages, and even today, Iowa Public Radio reports that some families are still struggling to rebuild.
In Iowa alone, the storm caused widespread power outages and damaged or downed over 7 million trees, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. It damaged structures, like the twisted and toppled grain bins Bergus and his family saw while finally on their way home. The storm flattened crops, costing nearly $500 million in losses. In some areas, continuous straight-line winds gusted for up to 45 minutes.
“I get nervous when I hear a wind advisory, that’s still there,” Bergus said.
Josie Fischels is an intern on NPR’s News Desk.