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One year after the derecho
Going without electricity (just for a while) put Iowans in the bottom global 10%
On what otherwise seemed a nondescript Monday morning among others in pandemic-locked-down 2020, a derecho roared across Iowa and into points east, causing in excess of $11 billion in damage -- more than any other thunderstorm event in American history. Straight-line wind speeds peaked at 140 miles an hour around Cedar Rapids, which ended up losing half of its tree canopy.
■ It's hard to explain the scale of damage that occurs when everything in a band 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long struck almost simultaneously by winds of 70 mph or greater. Corn everywhere was laid flat to the ground, trees were shredded and permanently bent, and debris was scattered everywhere. The storm was frightening on the ground and stunning from the sky. The proper meteorological term was derecho, but it deserved to be called a windquake -- it was abrupt, widespread, and devastating.
■ The silence and darkness on the nights that followed the storm were eerie. So much of the state lost power -- including huge portions of Iowa's two largest metro areas, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids -- that it took a remarkable surge of electrical workers from all over the country to restore power to the more than 400,000 customers who lost it.
■ It's not only cliche but also inaccurate to say that the derecho left a huge share of Iowans living in what felt like a developing country. 90% of the world's population had access to electricity as of 2019 (and that number continues rising fast). More than a billion people gained access to electricity between 2005 and 2016.
■ Along with power outages came Internet outages, and not only because it's hard to access Wi-Fi without a functioning router. 49% of the world's people had Internet access by 2019, and though access varies by region, more than half of the people in each of North America, Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, East Asia, and the Pacific can get online.
■ As Iowans found when we were forced to go without, services like electricity and Internet access aren't mere creature comforts: They are essential tools for getting work done, for making use of most modern amenities (like refrigeration), and for engaging with the world. While there are still too many of our fellow Earthlings living in poverty, we should take cheer that the global middle class is a majority and growing.
■ The good news is that some lessons were learned: The National Weather Service now issues alerts for especially destructive thunderstorms (warning based upon the actual risk of harm from the threat, rather than on the express definition of the threat itself), and people who experienced the derecho have in many cases brought forward new ideas and plans for resiliency in anticipation of the next high-impact event. Derechos will happen again, and even ordinary severe thunderstorms can happen on the anniversary of the big one.
■ But in addition to giving us lessons in self-sufficiency and neighborly cooperation, memories of that brief, painful step backward in time ought to make us cheerleaders for the continued progress of people living all over the world as so many continue escaping extreme poverty and deprivation. Going without electricity (just for a while) put Iowans in the bottom global 10%. It was an unpleasant place to be, but with planning, attention, and continued growth, our next stay will be shorter and there will be even fewer other people joining us there.