Iowa farmers draw together

It was "the night Bradgate blew away," and the stories traveling from farm to farm are ones that will go down in the state's history.

BY SUSAN KIM | BRADGATE, Iowa | May 26, 2004

"Every building in Bradgate was damaged in some way."

—Douglas Hjort

It was "the night Bradgate blew away," and the stories traveling from farm to farm are ones that will go down in the state's history.

"There is one farm near Bradgate, and every building was destroyed except the house. There were three horses in the barn, and they were killed. This farmer had 20 cows and some pigs out in a little pasture. And he has no idea where they are. There is no sign of them."

Douglas Hjort offers this anecdote as just one example of the effect the recent severe storms have had on Iowa's farm families.

A representative of the United Church of Christ (UCC) National Disaster Ministries, Hjort has his own memories of the 1993 flood, when Iowa farms sustained huge losses. "I remember being out there and filling sandbags and walking in water up to my hips," he said.

Now the stories of the 2004 storms are slowly becoming the symbol of yet another historical marker for Iowa's rural communities.

The fact that farmers are already telling their stories is a healthy emotional sign for many communities, said Hjort. "Just talking through something is the start of the healing process. It's when you see people sitting there and they can't say anything that you know they really need help."

In rural communities - where everybody knows everybody else - the human spirit feels different than in more populated areas, pointed out Hjort. "There was a tornado that went right over the town we lived in, and it really hit one family that went to our church," he said. "I went over there maybe one hour after the tornado hit, and there were 50 people in that yard. It looked like a farm auction."

Hjort, supported by the UCC national headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, has been contacting local clergy and district church representatives to assess long-term needs and simply check on how people are doing.

From a neighbor-to-neighbor perspective, people are coming out in droves to help each other, observed Hjort. "Volunteers are all over the place," he said.

"Every building in Bradgate was damaged in some way."

Thirty of the 40 homes in Bradgate, some 100 miles northwest of Des Moines, were left uninhabitable by the tornado that struck Friday night. Fifteen of the town's 100 residents were injured, none seriously.

Iowa sighted 23 tornadoes on Saturday. The state's record for a single day is 27 tornadoes, reported on April 11, 2001.

President Bush on Tuesday issued a federal disaster declaration for 14 Iowa counties affected by the recent spate of tornadoes, high winds and flooding. More counties could be federally declared as assessments continue. Some 1,400 homes in 29 Iowa counties were damaged. Much of the damage is spread out over a wide area, making the case for a federal disaster declaration more challenging.

But the state averted what could have been even more severe flood damage, Hjort said. "The rivers are starting to decline."

Throughout the state, people who were wondering if they were in for another flood like the massive 1993 inundation were breathing a sigh of relief. That year a foot of rain inundated thousands of acres.

Farms, though, will feel the hit from flood losses. Local stream flooding is still covering some acreage, and 98 percent of the state's corn has already been planted, said Hjort.

There is still time to replant the ruined acres, but the optimum planting date - May 1 - has passed, and yields will be lower.

"That's just if it doesn't rain," Hjort added, "if they can get in there next week and replant."

The forecast doesn't look good. "Next week they are calling for above-normal rainfall, so it's doubtful if some damaged acres will be replanted at all. We're rapidly running out of time."

Even normal rainfall - about 1 inch a week this time of year in Iowa - could prevent replanting, since the ground is already waterlogged.

Ponding - or water standing in fields - is also a problem. "There are ponds all over the place, two to three acres in, say fields of 50 to 80 acres."

In some cases the water will soak in, or it will be drained away by tiles farmers have laid through their fields. "Corn can be underwater three to four days without killing it," said Hjort. "This will certainly stunt it. And soybeans can last only two to three days."

Replanting damaged acreage is a tricky decision, because getting into the field to do it might destroy healthy crops.

Iowa's farmers are coming off a good year, so disaster losses won't cause a significant number of bankruptcies, said Hjort. "Last year, cattle and hog prices were high, and corn and soybean prices were high. Farmers made good profits out of last year's crops."

That means farmers could recover from this disaster - if the rest of the summer weather holds. "But even if it should continue to rain this summer, we've learned a lot since '93," said Hjort.

With disaster-related losses in the headlines, Hjort sees this as a good time to shore up disaster preparedness and disaster response education. "We have to use this time of awareness to create a stronger disaster relief network," he said.

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