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Alison Gowans
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When the derecho roared through Cedar Rapids a year ago, Ladd Library Branch Manager Stephanie Hall wasn’t at the library on Cedar Rapids’ west side. But she could see how bad things were, and she called Branch Supervisor Tina Pipkin to check in.

The building had only been reopened on a limited basis for computer use for a short time, so there weren’t many people inside when the storm hit. But those who were there knew this wasn’t an ordinary storm.

“We could hear the roof rattling and things rolling around. An RV flipped over in the parking lot,” Pipkin said. “And then water was just gushing in. We were running around trying to get things moved out of the way.”

The roof damage from the storm would take months to get repaired, but with luck and the quick actions of staff, very little of the Library’s collection was lost to water damage.

A woman hands a man supplies in front of a tent.

All hands on deck

When the sirens started wailing and the wind picked up, the staff at the Downtown Library opened the doors and let people from Greene Square across the street come in to shelter in the book sorter room – they had nowhere else to go to escape the storm. Even some dogs came in alongside their owners.

“The windows just started to breathe; you wondered if they would crack,” Patron Services Specialist Tricia Semple said. “We watched trees fall in Greene Square, and all you heard was the creaking of the windows. When it ended, we were all kind of crying … It was a tremendous bonding thing for our team that was here that day. Those people are like my family now. It’s a shared trauma.”

In the following days, staff set up charging stations outside the Library for the public, as soon as power returned to the building.

Responding to a disaster of that magnitude meant all hands on deck. Cedar Rapids Public Library employees, were asked to put aside their regular job duties and help with the city’s response. Library employees worked at Neighborhood Resource Centers around Cedar Rapids, helping hand out supplies to residents in need, as well as at the tree debris drop off site as the massive cleanup work began.

Many staffed a Neighborhood Resource Center in the Ladd parking lot in the days after the storm, helping people who from the surrounding southwest side neighborhoods, some of the hardest hit in the city. 

“All of the people coming – you could just see the trauma,” Pipkin said. “They were our people. We knew a lot of them.”

Work to be done

Cedar Rapids Public Library Patron Services Specialist Jessica Duffy was working from home, chatting with teenage patrons on the Library’s teen chat service when the sirens went off on August 10, 2020. 

“I was trying to keep them calm. Then it was trying to keep ourselves calm,” she said. 

She had moved her laptop to the basement when the internet suddenly cut out, as the derecho winds rose. 

“That was probably the most emotionally hard part of it, losing touch with people and not knowing how they were,” she said.

Like many library employees, she signed up for shifts at tree debris drop off sites and Neighborhood Resource Centers.

At the debris site, she documented trucks coming in, which helped the city calculate how many tons of tree debris were being collected. 

“We had a list of trucks, and it was about 60 tons of debris per page, and we went through maybe 20 pages a day, plus there were four other debris sites,” she said. “You couldn’t even process the number of trees. It was just staggering.” 

As a Patron Services Specialist, her day to day job includes helping people who come into the Library fill out immigration paperwork or apply for jobs or search for information. She said working at the Neighborhood Resource Center felt like an extension of the Library’s mission – helping people get the resources they need.

“It was really hard. We’re used to being here and knowing what we can do and fixing problems. We process needs every day, but this was just a different scale,” she said. “This felt like what we were supposed to do.”

She went to her parent’s house in Illinois for the weekend after the storm. They urged her to stay there until the power was back on, but she said she couldn’t.

“I told them, ‘I can’t stay. I have to go back. There’s work to be done.’”

Caring for the community

Hall said seeing library staff sign up to help with the relief effort, even as they dealt with their own damaged homes, was moving.

“I was just really proud of how staff stepped up. People would want to do more than they had to,” Hall said. “It made me really proud to be a library employee. Our staff cares so much about the community. In times of crisis, we’re going to be there, whether we can be functioning in the building as librarians or not.” 

Library Administrative Assistant Jessica Musil was also helping at Ladd.

“There was so much need in the community, it seemed silly to just sit in an office. It was really nice to see city employees that you could tell cared, going out and staffing the resource centers. They had their own disaster stories at home. They could be at home, taking care of that, but they were out helping the community.”

At the resource centers, she said they gave away donations and supplies almost as quickly as they came in.

“You barely had a break, because there were so many people … the elderly, people who clearly had chronic illness, mobility issues, families with young kids,” she said. 

Certain things went quickly, especially diapers, personal care items, and cleaning supplies. When a donation of toothbrushes came in, they were snatched up immediately.

“People’s houses were destroyed so much they didn’t even have a toothbrush,” Musil said. “People were coming who were living in tents.”

At the Ladd Library resource site, staff set out picture books to give away as a small bit of distraction for children.

“You’d see the kids so excited to take a book home,” Musil said.

She was struck by how many people wanted to help – both locals and people coming from out of town.

“It didn’t matter which resource center you were at, there was always someone asking, ‘What do you need?’ or dropping off supplies,” she said.

‘Together, we rise’

Library volunteers also responded to the call to help, signing up for shifts at the resource centers. One of them was Connie Richardson, who is retired from a career in nonprofit administration. She said she volunteered because she could see the need.

“If I can do it, if it is helpful, I’ll do it. I was raised to do what needs to be done,” she said. “People were doing the right thing. I was very proud of Cedar Rapids for the response, for the dedication people had to helping others. The ingenuity people had sort of restored my faith.”

Semple also found hope in the collective response.

“There was just this tremendous sense of unity and coming together as a city,” she said. “It was devastating, but watching all those people come together gave me a sense of pride. … I’m really proud of our community. There’s still so much to do, such tremendous need, but together, we rise.”