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One Year After the Derecho, Some Refugee Families are Forever Changed

Kate Payne
David Niyogushima stands outside of his family's reconstructed apartment at the Glenbrook West complex in Cedar Rapids. He and six other family members were displaced for months, packing into a two-bedroom apartment.

A year ago this month, a powerful derecho slammed into Iowa, destroying homes and displacing scores of people. Among the hardest hit were refugees in Cedar Rapids, where the storm left more than a thousand homes unlivable. A year later, some residents say their lives will never be the same.

Anyes Ndayisaba says her life changed forever on Aug. 10. That day she was at home with her children on the top floor of the Cedar Terrace apartments on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids. Speaking through an interpreter, she said she had just given birth to her sixth child a week before.

“I was with this little one in my hands,” she said, as her now-1-year-old son whimpered. “The roof came off when I was holding the baby.”

She was trying to protect her newborn when the roof came crashing down onto her arm. Like so many others, she believed she and her family were going to die in that storm.

“I was about to die there with my kids,” she said, her voice thick with emotion.

IPR visited the wreckage of Ndayisaba’s apartment one year ago, after the family had been whisked away for medical care. The roof of the building had been entirely ripped off, blood splattered across the floor. It was astonishing that anyone could have survived the destruction.

CR refugee advocate Lemi Tilahun says the family who lived in this apt was here during #derecho. The mom had given birth 2 weeks before. The place was blown apart around them.

Miraculously, Ndayisaba and her family did survive. But a year later, every day is a challenge.

Even after a surgery, Ndayisaba says she has no strength in her arm and struggles to care for her toddler and her five other kids.

“I use one hand for everything,” she said.

Returning to her previous job as a housekeeper or joining her husband at the Tyson plant in Waterloo is unthinkable.

“Right now with how America is, you need both hands to work,” she said. “I don't think I'll be able to work much with one hand and I don't see how I'm going to be able to provide for the family.”

They lost everything at Cedar Terrace, one of a number of apartments where immigrants and refugees from around the world found community in Cedar Rapids, forging support networks to share information and rides to work and to medical appointments.

After fleeing conflict and war, refugees face death in the form of a storm

Some units at the complexes were literally blown apart by the 140 mile per hour winds as families huddled inside.

Credit Kate Payne
The roof of Anyes Ndayisaba's apartment at the Cedar Terrace complex in Cedar Rapids was entirely torn off in the derecho. She believed she and her children were going to die in the storm.

Like so many others, Boaz Muzige and his children had no idea a storm was coming. At home at the Glenbrook West apartments on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, he said he heard the sirens go off but didn’t know what they meant.

As the hurricane force winds battered their apartment, Muzige said all his family could do was pray and wait for death.

“All the kids were just screaming during the storm, ‘God we’re dying! God we’re dying!’” Muzige said through an interpreter.

After running from conflict in his home country of Congo for years, Muzige said it was devastating to face death in the place where his family had finally found safety.

Residents were homeless for weeks or months, staying in hotels or shelters

In the days after, residents relied on survival skills honed in refugee camps, pitching tents in the rubble and cooking over open fires as they waited for help. Some slept in their cars or out under the stars, advocates said. It took four days for the Red Cross to open an overnight shelter in the city.

Many residents were homeless for weeks or months, staying in a shelter at the local nonprofit the Catherine McCauley Center, or doubling up with friends or neighbors.

Credit Kate Payne
Refugee advocate Lemi Tilahun shows a picture he took of the destruction at the Westdale Court apartment complex in Cedar Rapids. The unit depicted in Tilahun's photo has since been leveled.

Violette Ntibangana and six other family members lived in a two-bedroom apartment for months as they waited for their unit to be rebuilt.

“The living situation was very bad because [I] had kids sleeping by the door, others sleeping on top of each other, some sleeping beside the bed,” Ntibangana said through an interpreter.

Her son David Niyogushima said the family was offered a place to stay in a hotel but declined.

"No, we can't go to a hotel," he explained. "First of all, we can't even cook in the hotels so we can't eat the food we want to eat. And then our whole family is not going to fit in there. Because we have like five, six people in the house. We can't sleep there."

The family is still trying to replace lost belongings and is struggling to pay their bills. One of Niyogushima's sisters still sleeps on the floor because they don’t have enough beds.

Advocate: 'Enormous' gaps in official recovery efforts

At the Westdale Court apartments on the southwest side, some units have simply been leveled. Others appear almost unchanged from one year ago, apart from a blue tarp covering up the worst of the damage.

Refugee advocate Lemi Tilahun says there are stark differences between who’s recovered and who hasn’t.

“It's sort of breathtaking to see nothing here. Like I wonder what happened to the set of families that lived over here,” Tilahun said, standing in front of where an apartment once was.

In the aftermath of the storm, Tilahun worked to fill gaps in the emergency response, spending hours trying to convince families to leave unsafe homes for a hotel or a shelter.

He says some resisted because they couldn’t bear to lose what few belongings they had left or because resettlement brought back painful flashbacks of refugee camps.

“We have to really go back to the drawing table and reevaluate and reconfigure. Are our systems and our processes really effective? And are they equitable?” he said. “Are they reaching who they are intended to reach, particularly our most vulnerable?”

Tilahun says there is so much work to be done to make recovery resources more accessible. The post-disaster bureaucracy has been a nightmare for many residents, even more so for the working poor and those facing language barriers. A year later, some refugees told IPR they don’t know what FEMA is, let alone if they got sufficient aid from the agency.

“This is a deep-rooted, systemic and socioeconomic issue. We're trying to find ways to be able to mitigate and shrink that gap,” Tilahun said. “It's a long way to go. It's enormous.”

Credit Kate Payne
A year after the derecho, the damaged buildings at the Cedar Terrace apartments in Cedar Rapids are under reconstruction. Former resident Anyes Ndayisaba told IPR she will never go back there after the trauma she suffered during the storm.

A place to start, Tilahun says, is for nonprofit organizations and city officials to organize a focus group of community members to understand where formal response efforts fell short and to empower residents to take ownership in future disaster planning efforts.

Children, families traumatized by flashbacks of the derecho

The storm compounded an affordable housing shortage in Cedar Rapids, forcing some families out of the city or even out of the state, unraveling support networks that refugees forged over years.

One year later, the damaged apartment buildings at Cedar Terrace are empty. The roofs and balconies have been replaced, but reconstruction is still underway. In a collapsing garage, furniture, stuffed animals and family photos lay abandoned.

Anyes Ndayisaba and her family have since moved to another apartment in town, where she says rent is much more expensive.

She says she will never go back to Cedar Terrace. Her children are still traumatized from that day.

“To see a rain, just like a rain…all the kids will cry and they’ll be like, ‘Mom, the wind is coming back’,” she said. “I feel like the kids have something in their heart. All my kids. I don't know if it's going to go away.”

She says the derecho will be with them forever, just the scars on her arm.