Why We Should Care About Iowa’s Recent Tragedy
Iowa, a little state that has cornfields and the first Presidential primaries, does not make an appearance on the news very often. So when they were hammered by a storm last week, you might not have heard much about it. Of course, it wasn’t just Iowa. Iowa received the brunt of it, but the storm continued in a dissipated way across Illinois and Indiana and even southern Michigan. My family is in the Midwest, so the news popped up in my social media feeds.
My sister was driving home from vacation there and had to pull the car into the gas station as high winds and hail made driving too risky. I talked to her on the phone later to ask how she and her friends were doing. She’s fine. Her friends are alive, but those who farm have lost their crops.
There’s a decent chance you missed it on the news. NPR covered it a day or two after the fact. Washington Post had an initial report about it, followed by an impact report in the Perspective section, NYTimes wrote about it too. But if you don’t pay for those news outlets, you wouldn’t see the stories. It’s been about a week now since the storm, and everyone everywhere other than Iowa has moved on. That’s a problem.
The storm destroyed 43% of Iowa’s corn and soybean crops-and those are the main industries of the state. But it’s not just crops the storm destroyed. The derecho, tornado-force straight winds, destroyed grain silos, smashed homes and businesses, knocked out cell and internet service, and littered the area with debris and knocked over trees. A request for federal assistance, as yet unanswered, details a need for $45.3 million to repair structures and utilities and clear roads. A further $3.7 BILLION is estimated in crop damages.
Rural America has a hard time getting sufficient cell and internet coverage during the best of times. It is hard to convince providers that they should install cell coverage for a square mile than only has 5 people living in it. The returns to infrastructure investment just aren’t worth it. I have driven through miles of cornfields on cross-country trips plenty of times. As long as you stay on the interstate, you wouldn’t notice the coverage problems. But if you decide to take a scenic detour-or if you have to due to road construction-you’ll quickly notice that your phone’s data no longer works. Your GPS may become unreliable. Calls will drop. Again, this is during the good times.
As the Iowa reporters who wrote for the Washington Post noted, they couldn’t get national traction for their stories because they didn’t have the internet and cell data to broadcast the stories. Few people read print reports anymore. We expect to see high-resolution footage of the damage. We expect video interviews with the people expected. Tragedy-porn, as it’s sometimes called. America doesn’t read newspapers anymore. Fifty-seven percent of people watch TV news. Those who read their news read from social media or curated “Top 5” news emails. And for the rural mid-west, that became a huge problem.
They couldn’t get the footage out. No electricity meant their cell phones ran out of charge. No data meant that even the local news reporters were having to drive with flash drives to the nearest unaffected to upload and process the footage. That slows reporting down. It doesn’t play well on CNN’s Breaking News headlines when you have to wait for a flash drive to be delivered for your next update.
But why was this the case? After all, hurricanes that rip through our coastal cities knock out the power and internet and cell towers too. We still get plenty of live stream coverage on those events. The answer is twofold. One, cell and internet providers prepare for coastal hurricanes. They install extra battery back up in their hurricane-prone locations and bring in crews and equipment for repairs before hurricanes hit. Second, news outlets know America as a whole will expect to hear about those stories, and so they send the necessary equipment and crew on location-satellite phones, car cigarette lighter chargers, extra battery packs, etc. They are prepared to send helicopters to take aerial footage. Video from the scene is literally flown back to headquarters.
Knowing that this type of coverage IS possible, Iowans are entirely justified in feeling like they are being intentionally ignored. Quite frankly, they are right. This is by no means the first tragedy that the Midwest has faced in relative silence. In 2019, much of the area disappeared under heavy flooding. The previous winter had covered upstream areas in a record snowfall. Then a “bomb cyclone” in the spring melted it all with added rain. For months, whole towns were under water. But after the initial reports on the flooding, the rest of the nation moved on. Another round of feature pieces appeared as the dykes were being rebuilt but few people paid attention.
Well, few people outside of the Midwest. Locally, of course, everyone paid attention. They couldn’t plant their corn or soybeans due to flooding. This year, they planted. Now those crops have been knocked down before they could be harvested. The devastation is catastrophic enough to be seen from space. Two years of back-to-back of farm failures in the same states.
Certainly, USDA crop insurance covers some of this year’s failures, but not enough. On average, the payout is 62% of the losses. That might be enough following a good year when you had some margin. But if you just lost your house, your storage silos, your harvest equipment, 62% is not going to let you rebuild. Family farmers will have to quit their farms because of this. Even mega-ag corporations will take big losses.
After the 2016 elections, there was a lot of talk of how Donald Trump had won because the Democrats had been ignoring rural America. What the 2019 floods and the derecho have shown all too clearly is that rural America is still being ignored. The United States of America no longer thinks of itself as an agricultural country. We are increasingly divided between big cities and middle-of-nowheres. If half of Iowa suddenly goes offline, most of us don’t even notice. But we should. Dismissing the people who grow your food is always a bad move. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” And if that hand is in pain and scraping the bottom of the bowl looking for scraps, you need to pay attention.
Originally published at https://activenewsresponse.com on August 17, 2020.