First Congregational United Church of Christ in Belle Plaine, Iowa, is 154 years old, with an average of 11 at worship. I have been the pastor since March 2014.
On Monday, Aug. 10, I was running errands when I heard sirens going off in town. I rushed the three blocks to the parsonage and was able to get my plants off the porch railing before the winds went over 100 mph.
The storm, a powerful thunderstorm called a “derecho,” lasted around an hour, with terrifying, hurricane-force winds for around 20 minutes of that hour.
I watched shingles lift off the church roof. Trees snapped in half and blocked every street in town. Power was out for the whole town of roughly 2,500. There was massive damage to trees and homes across Benton County and 25 other counties.
Belle Plaine’s townspeople started cleaning up immediately, first clearing a path in the streets for first responders. I began calling church members, but with power out I wasn’t getting many responses, so that evening I drove around.
Every church member had tree damage and some house damage. All were without power. No one was hurt in the initial storm but a firefighter did suffer a head injury responding to a call Monday evening.
After the derecho passed, I emailed the UCC’s Iowa Conference Disaster Coordinator, the Rev. Brice Hughes, and the Rev. Darrell Goodwin, associate Conference minister, and explained that things were bad.
They assured me I had the support of the Conference disaster ministry to do what I needed to feed people and get folks supplies. Belle Plaine’s city administrator and mayor opened the community center as a feeding center since it has a generator.
Tuesday, knowing disaster always catches some people without food and power outages cause others’ food to spoil, I went out to get supplies to make 100 sack lunches, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bottled water, chips, a fruit cup and a pudding cup.
The sack lunches were gone in an hour. I made and quickly handed out another 200 sandwiches along with bottles of water.
It was clear that the city needed more help. The mayor asked me to coordinate food and other resources. I started to work from the community center, putting in 12-hour days. I worked with Benton County Emergency Management and community groups to provide sack lunches and dinners for eight days, along with getting cleaning supplies, tarps, chainsaws and assistance forms.
Through Facebook, I shared what was happening in Belle Plaine. The Rev. Brigit Stevens, UCC Iowa Conference minister, took time out of her sabbatical and drove from Des Moines on Friday, Aug. 14, with her children to bring supplies for sack lunches. Brice Hughes (Burlington) and the Rev. Bob Fread (Traer) came the next day with supplies and encouragement.
By Sunday, Aug.16, what started as 100 sack lunches turned into 800 a day for Belle Plaine and four other small communities.
Local volunteers donated food and time to deliver to power-line workers and shut-ins. St. Paul’s UCC from Oskaloosa, Iowa, came Monday and Tuesday and made 1,000 sack lunches total. They also provided encouragement to community members and donated other supplies.
Each night, various companies and community groups provided more than 200 dinners that ranged from burgers and hot dogs to soup and spaghetti.
That Sunday, a group with Gideon’s Rescue Co. from Oklahoma arrived in Belle Plaine. They were scouting the area for how they could help with recovery.
The church finally got power back that evening and we became home for the rescue company plus 30 college students and several instructors from Union College in Lincoln, Neb. The students are part of Union’s International Response Team program and are trained EMTs and skilled in rappelling. They were able to do much more heavy cleanup work.
The rescue and college groups wore face masks, used hand sanitizer often, did daily health checks and slept inside and outside the church, well spaced out. They set up solar showers, brought in their own food and cooked in the church kitchen. Community members donated pizza one night and ice cream another.
By Wednesday, Aug. 19, Union’s team had a large crane and were taking trees out of homes, tarping roofs and providing other assistance we couldn’t have provided without them. This group helped more than 30 families before leaving Belle Plaine on Sunday, Aug. 23.
Urbandale UCC had a volunteer who drove twice to Belle Plaine to deliver cleaning supplies, tarps and a new chainsaw. Monetary donations came from all over the country. UCC Kansas-Oklahoma Conference Disaster Coordinator Don Miller brought 40 disaster cleanup buckets. The UCC Nebraska Conference was prepared to send cleanup buckets as well.
Most of the town has power now – sometimes intermittently. An electrician needs to certify that lines into homes are safe before power can be turned on. My current task is getting grocery store gift cards to help people replace the spoiled contents of their refrigerators and freezers.
The UCC’s support has been overwhelming and has allowed the community to begin to clean up and to heal.
(Pictured are the Rev. Kate West, right, and the Rev. Brice Hughes.)