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A Day Touring Flooded Iowa Farms

For two days last month, I followed state and federal government officials around southwest Iowa as they toured flood devastation. The trip was an emotional roller coaster that left me with more questions than answers, and feelings of both inspiration and frustration. I can imagine local farmers and ranchers are experiencing even more intense emotions as the toll of the floods continues to be tallied.

On March 28, I left Des Moines bright and early to catch up with Iowa Department of Agriculture officials in Mills county.

10 a.m.

Stevann-Huey
Stevann Huey, Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

I pulled in line behind several other cars and trucks that had gathered on a gravel road outside a Malvern, Iowa, farm where three truckloads of hay and cornstalks were scheduled for delivery. Media from all over the state set up while donation organizers sipped their Casey’s coffee in the driveway waiting on the semis. It was a brisk morning, but everyone seemed in good spirits.

Stevann Huey, the inbound donations coordinator, and I chatted for a bit. She first learned of Southwest Iowa Hay Recovery efforts on the Lusco Farms Rescue Facebook page and answered their request for help. Although her home was not impacted by flooding, she told me her son’s school may not have water for the rest of the school year. Students and teachers have to drink bottled water and use portable toilets until further notice.

10:30 a.m.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and his staff arrived. They offered updates on the day’s schedule and the estimated devastation. With water still standing, the FSA is still not able to accurately calculate the damages, but the initial count was $214,000 in Iowa agricultural losses.

10:37 a.m.

A semi load of donated hay arrives in Malvern, Iowa
Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

Padem Lawler arrived with a semi load of round hay bales donated by Ron Stensland and Tim Fevold of Story County, Iowa.

The well-coordinated team wasted no time unloading the donation. Malven farmer Bob Blum started up his John Deere 4020 and stacked the bales one by one in his yard. He has offered his farm for donation storage while delivery or pick-up by farmers in need is coordinated.

Meanwhile, Huey, Scott Shehan, and Stephanie Butler explained the devastation Mills county producers have experienced this spring.

“About two weeks ago we were on animal rescues actually trying to help people who needed help getting their animals out of the flood water,” Shehan explained to the cameras and microphones pointed in his direction. “It very quickly changed to what are we going to do after we get them out.”

With a little help from social media, locals found each other and got to work collecting donations.

Scott Shehan
Scott Shehan, Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

Shehan continued, “I remember talking to Stevann when we first started this and I said, ‘I do not want this to be chaos.’ These people are living in chaos already. So I need some help to make sure that we get some quick answers for them and that they don’t feel like they are by themselves and struggling to feed their animals.”

11:02 a.m.

As Blum finished unloading the round bales, two more semis arrived with square bales of cornstalks from another farmer, Bill Couser. Bob Schuler donated trucking.

“These Story county cattlemen are just taking care of their own,” Couser told the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

Stover-Bales-on-Semi
Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

Everyone involved in the Southwest Iowa Hay Recovery effort seemed to have a similar attitude.

Bob Blum unloading donated hay in Malvern, Iowa
Bob Blum, Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

“We’re doing what we can as a community to help them,” Shehan added. “We hope we’re never in that position, but if I ever am, I’m hoping somebody stands up and helps me. That’s what the Midwest does.”

More hay and cornstalks have been donated, but the group is in need of trucking to connect the supplies with livestock producers in need.

The team worked quickly, focused on the job in front of them, and mostly avoided the media.

11:36 a.m.

Naig and his staff pack up to head to the next appointment and the media followed closely behind. Farmers and volunteers continued to unload the two remaining trucks of cornstalks.

I made a quick pit stop at Casey’s and made a short video reflecting on the inspiring events of the morning.

12:30 p.m.

After passing multiple detour signs and road closed warnings, the caravan arrived at the edge of the water in the heart of Hamburg, Iowa. I parked on the edge of what I assume was once a gravel road, crossing my fingers I wouldn’t get my rental car stuck and wishing I had brought better boots.

While everyone gathered around Naig, Bill Northey, and a few local farmers, members of the media did their best to shield their cameras and recorders from the stinging wind and rain. As I shivered, I struggled to hold my camera steady enough to get a good photo for the few seconds I was brave enough to pull it out of my jacket. Next to me, another reporter strained to scribble down notes on a waterlogged notebook without tearing the paper.

Bill Northey touring flood damage in Iowa
Bill Northey, Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

Stenzel-List
Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

  

Lightning prevented Naig and Northey from taking a tour of the area by boat. Instead, we huddled under a tree as Mike Stenzel and his son, Michael, explained the events of the past week. Mike handed Northey a handwritten list of the family’s losses, so far. Where we stood was under water just a day or two prior.

Across the flood water, white corn spilled out in every direction from underneath a crumpled grain bin. The Stenzels explained the bin doesn’t belong to them, but their grain storage may be in similar condition. Floodwaters had prevented them from getting to much of their property. The day before, they were able to get in their shop for the first time by boat. There was still 7 or 8 feet of water in the building.

Wide-Flooded-Grain-Bin
Photo Credit: Natalina Sents

The small crowd was thoroughly soaked by the time we decided to seek shelter in a small carport nearby. A thick layer of silty sludge covered the floor. The sound of rain roared from the metal roof as the Stenzels continued to talk with Northey and Naig. It was difficult to hear the details of the conversation, but frustration with the Army Corps of Engineers was clear.

Eventually, Northey broke off from the group to speak to the media again. He explained there is no program to cover the grain farmers in the area lost when their bins burst.

“Grain losses are really tough,” Northey said, rain still dripping from his glasses.

1:15 p.m.

Northey and Naig hit the road again for more meetings that were closed to the media.

Overwhelmed, I started heading home. I felt guilty for rolling in, taking my photos, and leaving town without doing anything to help. Not that there was anything to do. The sand-covered streets led me through what felt like a ghost town. Not a soul was outside. Piles of household items sat outside every home.

I clipped my phone to the windshield to video my drive out of town. I knew I didn’t have the words to describe the miserable, soggy conditions in Hamburg.

At one point on the way home, I pulled over to the shoulder to take off my soaked layers. I cranked up the heat and tried to stop shivering.

When I finally made it home, dry clothes and my warm bed never felt so good.

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