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Dealing with natural disasters

In a time when we are emotionally and economically strained by COVID-19, the effects of natural disasters are magnified. Many of us felt that strain in the wake of the derecho this summer. Many around the country have felt similar emotional and economic devastation because of fires roaming the West Coast and hurricanes hitting the Southeast. Between those natural disasters and the unpredictability of droughts and heavy rains (especially here in Iowa), we’ve seen tens of millions of dollars in damages and hundreds of thousands of lives affected nationwide.

A recent article in the Des Moines Register highlighted many of these now-familiar stories here in Iowa: stories of corn harvest taking twice as long with half the yield, stories of destroyed grain bins and getting just enough money from federal crop insurance to get by until next year.

We both have seen the effects of extreme weather first-hand. One of us watched as the entire fall crop of her CSA farm was covered by four feet of water from a 2016 flood. The other, like many farmers, has faced the slow march of changing weather by putting in bigger culverts, switching crops, and advocating for policy change.

People often shy away from conversations about the root causes of severe weather events. Because of our polarized political climate, it feels too controversial to talk about, but it’s undeniable that something is changing. Between the floods in 1993, 2008, 2011 and 2019, Iowa has seen four “100-year” floods in the past twenty-seven. We’re seeing hotter days, heavier rain storms, and increasingly unpredictable weather. In one sobering example, climatologists say the weather conditions that led to the devastating 1993 flood are becoming the new normal.

These examples of a changing climate are not unique to Iowa. Cal Fire reports that, since the beginning of 2020, California has witnessed over 8,100 wildfires, burning more than 3.7 million acres in just one state. Hurricane Laura, just one of eight named hurricanes this year, caused between $10 to 12 billion in damages to the Texas and Louisiana coastline, more than double the estimated damages the derecho caused here.

It’s clear we need a new path forward. One that both helps our friends and neighbors in the present and addresses our future by reducing the production of greenhouse gases causing these natural disasters to worsen.

We can offer immediate support by providing food, shelter and relief supplies. We should question our consumer choices and find ways to support local businesses, green technologies, and energy sources. On a macro level, we should ask our federal and state governments to pass legislation moving us towards 100% carbon-neutral emissions so we can mitigate the severity of these disasters.

By making intentional decisions at every level of government to promote sustainability and reduce our environmental impact, we take steps towards a healthier, safer world where our changing climate will not magnify COVID’s strain and where we can thrive.


Seth Watkins, a fourth-generation farmer, raises cattle and cultivates crops on 3,000 acres of land east of Clarinda.

Hannah Breckbill is the founder of Humble Hands Harvest, a worker-owned co-operative organic farm outside of Decorah.

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