On August 10, 2020, my home town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa was at the epicenter of a Derecho–a land-based hurricane with sustained winds exceeding 100 miles per hour. The storm raced through east-central Iowa, cutting a swath 20 miles wide from Marshalltown to Clinton.
The Derecho left destruction in its wake. Entire fields of corn were flattened. Giant grain bins were crushed. Cedar Rapids lost over 65 percent of its tree canopy (1). Roofs were smashed, trees snapped in two, apartments ripped open. Over 200,000 persons were left without power for days. Agricultural agronomists are estimating the storm will cost $4 billion dollars in crop damages at the state level (2).
My wife and daughters and I watched it from the shelter of our basement. The first telling sign that this was a big deal came when our sixty-foot tall oak tree snapped at the roots and crushed a retaining wall. For the next thirty harrowing minutes, we watched and listened in silence as the wind pelted the house with horizontal sheets of rain, and branches thumped on the roof above us.
When the winds finally calmed, I ventured out to the garage. I stared at the jungle of leaves and debris that littered our driveway. Where I used to walk freely through the yard, I now had to climb and weave around layered obstacles of fallen branches and dense foliage.
A feeling of despair slowly settled into my soul, the scope of my need rising steadily with each step around the house. I became acutely aware of my limited experience with chainsaws and lack of heaving moving equipment. I estimated that we lost somewhere around fifteen mature trees–towering oaks, lindens, ash, and hickories. Many were snapped half-way up the trunk. I’m nervous with chainsaws as it is. I’ve seen too many cases where guys have been crippled in tree accidents. I could not fathom how I would get at those half-lopped giants.
With the great storm came other problems. We lost electricity. The pump that ran our local well could not run without power, so we had no running water. Cell towers in eastern Iowa were out of commission, so we had no cell coverage. In a matter of minutes, w\e had gone from normal, connected living in the twenty-first century to Gilligan’s Island.
I could go on and on about how bad it was those few days after the Derecho. I could speak of driving 15 miles before finding a grocery store that had power so I could buy a couple of gallons of drinking water. I could talk about the hour-long wait at the two gas stations still in business because they were smart enough to have generators. I could speak about having to make a presentation to the US Air Force in a Zoom meeting two days later, and how I had to shower and shave in the company bathroom in preparation. But instead, I want to pause for a moment of reflection.
The year 2020 has proven that not everything in life is certain. The cancellation of March Madness and Big Ten football are examples. But one thing you can count on after any natural disaster: some atheist somewhere is asserting this is evidence that God doesn’t exist, asking, “how can a benevolent God cause such misery and destruction?”
I don’t mind a good debate once in awhile. It can be healthy and enlightening. It can change your perspective, or even improve it. But to make a good debate worthwhile, parties on both sides need to be informed. Otherwise, the discussion will quickly deteriorate into emotional rants and defensive postures. People who ask this question need to read the Bible. Those who do not yet believe themselves to be experts on God are the poster children of the Dunning-Kruger effect (3). They’ve heard about God through network news, YouTube searches and Twitter feeds, so they’re confidence is over-inflated. In reality, they are on the far left side of the competence axis. They have a lot to learn about how God’s benevolence works.
Paul was one of God’s most beloved followers. But in his lifetime, God caused Paul to suffer imprisonment, three public beatings, five whippings, three shipwrecks, and a snakebite. He was threatened with death, viciously accused, stoned by an angry mob and left to die. He spent many sleepless nights, often without food and exposed to the elements (4). Nevertheless, no one testified of God’s benevolence than Paul, who spoke with conviction about God’s supernatural soul strengthening, and the feeling of spiritual contentment he experienced even when bound and shackled in prison (5). God’s benevolence is not expressed in the absence of adversity. It is expressed in spiritual provisions for our soul in the midst of adversity. You must believe in Him to experience the kind of peace, security, and comfort Paul felt in the midst of his trials. Paul calls it a “secret” that is shared exclusively by those who are humble enough to seek God’s provision. Those who rely on external circumstances to bring them such peace will be disappointed.
We definitely suffered loss in the Iowa Derecho of 2020. Big trees are gone forever. A hole was punched in my roof. Some siding was punctured and dislodged. The detached garage suffered some structural damage. But now that the Derecho is several weeks in the rearview mirror, I can testify to God’s love for us in several ways.
First, no one in my family was injured. In fact, our city had a surprisingly low number of fatalities or serious injuries on August 10 due to the storm. This is a small miracle and a blessing in and of itself. The Derecho came so suddenly and with very little warning, people were caught off guard. It struck Cedar Rapids at 12:30–a time when a lot of people were out on errands or returning to work after lunch. The one casualty that day was a biker out for a ride, unaware of the danger.
Secondly, though our home was surrounded by trees, the house itself and the two vehicles parked outside were relatively unscathed. The top of a fifty-foot linden fell harmlessly beside my daughter’s 2009 Honda Accord, breaking the rear window but otherwise barely leaving a scratch. My 2003 Chevy Suburban was parked beneath a towering oak. A one-ton branch snapped off and plunged straight down. But rather than smashing the Suburban like a pancake, it fell neatly to the front and side, merely cracking the windshield and leaving a minor dent in the fender. It were as though God was precisely placing them out of harm’s way.
These were blessings indeed, and I am grateful for them. Many people in our city lost so much more. But blessings as they were, they were nothing compared to the greatest act of God’s benevolence I will never forget.
Disasters like the Derecho are hard to endure. But in a sense, they are useful agents of God for stirring up people to acts of kindness and encouragement. We experienced this in the help we received from our daughter, Jessica, her husband Curtis, and our friends and Curtis’ parents Ray and Julie. Most people look at disasters and see destruction and despair. Special people see them opportunities to lend a hand. That’s exactly the kind of person Curtis is. He learned it from his parents.
Jessica and Curtis had just arrived on the mainland after Curtis’ two-year assignment in Oahu. They were settling into their hotel in Omaha, Nebraska when they heard about our plight. A day after the Derecho, I was sitting in a conference room preparing my presentation when I got a text from Jess.
“Want some help with chopping up trees? Curtis just got a chainsaw, we can be there tomorrow.“
My heart skipped a beat. I replied, “that would be great!”
Curtis and Jessica arrived on Wednesday at noon and promptly went to work. They had taken precautions to purchase chainsaw supplies and gasoline on the way. This saved us precious hours which would have otherwise been spent navigating through slow-moving traffic and waiting in mile-long lines at the gas station.
That same week, Ray and Julie had planned to drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Omaha to visit Jessica and Curtis. But when they heard about the destruction in Cedar Rapids, they changed their plans. They were coming to help as well. I don’t know too many people who would drive seven hours to a hot, dry, and devastated city with no power or guarantee of running water. But that’s exactly what they did. They showed up on Thursday bringing more supplies, and more gas.
Soon we had a wrecking crew going at it. Ray, Curtis, and I doing our best to hack away at the big hulks while all the girls–including Julie, my wife Michele, and daughters Joanna, Sarah, and Gina– hauled branches to the ditch.
Ray and Curtis helped me in more ways than one. They taught me everything they knew about chainsaw maintenance. They helped me remove the chain, locate and file down burrs, reinstall it, and tighten it back up again. They made sure I knew how to keep the saw oiled and gassed properly. Now I work my chainsaw with skill and confidence. That would not have happened without God’s benevolence in the Derecho.
The days had been hot, and the sun beat down on us mercilessly. We still had no electricity and no water. The yard was in shock, fully exposed to the sun’s rays where there had always been shade. I had a mild case of heat stroke, stumbling around the yard barely keeping myself upright. My arms felt like spaghetti. But my amazing helpers kept going.
All the food in the fridge was spoiled. But Michele found hamburgers, a pair of sirloins, and a ribeye buried in the freezer. They were still thawing, so we lit up the grill and had ourselves a feast fit for kings and queens. At sunset, we were hot and dirty. Then we remembered that the hot tub was full of lukewarm water. Sitting there without power, the water had cooled to a refreshingly cool temperature. We grabbed a bucket and commenced to douse our heads. Curtis had the bright idea to use hot tub water to solve another of our challenges–we now had plenty of water to flush toilets.
Friday, the water came back on. The electricity was up and running by Saturday. Things were slowly getting back to normal. The days after the Derecho were hard, but we found pleasure in little things like that. Our bodies and souls alike were nourished by God’s provisions. Our bonds with Ray, Julie, Curtis, and Jessica are strong. These kind of pleasures are never found in the ordinary. They are only discovered in the extraordinary, the hard, and the unpleasant. This is how the benevolence of God is demonstrated in a Derecho.
My years of experience combined with careful study of the scriptures have made me quite the optimist. A tornado ripped through my childhood home in 1976. We lost pretty much everything, but I am here and well today and happy to tell that story. The same is true today. I’m already looking at the bright side of the Derecho. I lost a lot of trees, but that means less raking this fall! It also means more sunny space to plant flowers and grass. With every suffering, there is always a silver lining in God’s playbook.
I will count the Iowa Derecho of 2020 as a storm for the ages. But there is little room for complaining. I will not despair the losses, but will look with optimism at what lies ahead. I am forever grateful to Ray, Julie, Jessica, and Curtis for their immeasurable help, both physical and spiritual. And I will give thanks to the Benevolent God, who creates opportunities like the Derecho for us to experience His benevolence.
4) II Corinthians 11:23-28
5) Philippians 4:10-13