Driving through Cedar Rapids in the aftermath of the August 10 derecho was heartbreaking. In every direction, fallen trees and power lines blocked the streets, crushing homes and vehicles for miles. Properties and apartment complexes were severely damaged, leaving several in our community, including many immigrant and refugee families, without a home. And after moving into our new location just one month prior, the Catherine McAuley Center’s new building sustained significant roof and water damage. Due to the unsafe condition of the building and a widespread power outage, residents living in the Transitional Housing Program had to move out of the Center, and typical operations were suspended as our focus shifted completely to crisis recovery.
Immediately following the storm, program staff developed a plan to ensure that clients and residents were safe and had access to essential resources. CMC staff and volunteers joined together to respond to the growing needs of the community and began the process of rebuilding.
- Women’s Services helped residents in the Transitional Housing Program move out of the damaged building and into temporary housing with other CMC housing programs.
- Refugee & Immigrant Services met with clients off-site and continued to provide supportive services to their clients.
- Education Services checked in with students and assisted with collecting supplies to help our neighbors with the lack of electricity and access to essential resources.
- Volunteers and staff began the cleanup and debris removal process at each of CMC’s properties.
- The food pantry and hygiene closet were opened to the community, supplies were passed out to anyone in need, and food boxes were delivered to students, residents, and clients.
The devastation in Eastern Iowa left over 200,000 people without power for several weeks, causing a shortage of food, gas, ice, coolers, and access to electricity and other vital supplies. Days after the storm, news spread of the destruction in Iowa, but the immensity of the crisis was yet to be discovered. Images of several apartment complexes on the Southeast side of Cedar Rapids began to spread, showing collapsed buildings, ripped open roofs, and children and families sleeping in tents in the debris. The community soon learned that the derecho caused a severe homelessness crisis, and CMC quickly developed a plan to provide housing.
In coordination with local agencies, CMC staff transitioned the former Catherine McAuley Center building into a temporary shelter to house at least 60 refugees and immigrants who were displaced. The shelter provided 24 private rooms, two kitchens where families joined together to cook traditional African meals, access to interpreters and kind volunteers who entertained children while parents worked with case managers to plan their next steps, and individualized employment support and resource navigation to help families find permanent housing and meet other needs.
Meanwhile, schools faced another challenge as derecho damage and the pandemic shifted the start of the school year to online learning. This shift also created a challenge for students who did not have access to internet, and for those whose second language is English. Limited access to internet and individualized instruction created a barrier to learning for refugee and immigrant students, and RIS Case Managers started reaching out to schools to offer our support.
With the help of some amazing teachers from McKinley Middle School and Washington High School, CMC Case Managers transition an undamaged wing of the new Catherine McAuley Center into a temporary school offering separate classrooms, internet access, and individualized support to nearly 30 students daily from 9 Eastern Iowa schools.
Over the next few months following the storm, families at the shelter worked towards securing permanent housing and students filled the halls of CMC as they navigated online learning. By the end of October, all of the families moved into their new homes! At the start of December, students receiving support with online learning started to go back to in-person instruction, and the Center will remain open and flexible to meet the needs of students throughout the school year.
Inspired by the resilience and courage of our clients and with the help of our community, we are working to overcome this crisis together! CMC staff will are dedicated to ensure that neighbors in our community have access to vital educational and supportive services at the Catherine McAuley Center during this crisis and into the future.