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For One Family, Iowa Derecho Brings ‘Saints and Angels’

Greyshirts clear debris and win the hearts of a Cedar Rapids couple.

Team Rubicon Greyshirt Mark Coffin was in Iowa, driving from one potential work site to another, when he saw a residence surrounded by downed tree debris. It was cold—in the high 40s—with the wind blowing and a steady downpour. In the yard, a lone individual was working with tree loppers, cutting away small pieces of debris from a tree that was blocking the front door. This was a family that Team Rubicon was built to help, Coffin thought, and quickly turned the vehicle around and pulled into the driveway.

Rolling down the window, Coffin introduced himself and asked the woman working in the yard if the family could use some assistance with storm debris clean up. That woman was Rukhsana Drahozal and she and her husband, Art, had survived the derecho—a straight line wind storm with winds up to 140 mph—that struck Cedar Rapids, Iowa in early August 2020. The storm had severely impacted the Drahozal family’s property, downing numerous large trees, creating a roof breach, and damaging one of their vehicles. A large tree blocked access to the front of their home and denied egress in the case of emergency. The back door was also partially blocked. Trees and debris were everywhere on the property.

The Drahozal home as Greyshirt Mark Coffin found it.

The home had been in the family for generations. Art had moved into the house with his family when he was only 12 months old. He has now lived there for 65 years. Rukhsana lived and grew up across the street from Art, and the couple has now been married for 41 years. Both have health issues that make some things more difficult. Art would soon be having hip replacement surgery. Rukhsana, a former airline employee, suffered frostbite and nerve damage to her fingers while deicing planes in minus-31-degree weather. Yet there she was, standing in the rain, attempting to trim back branches so she could get Art out the front door in a fire.

At first, Drahozal was leery of Coffin and his offer. She hadn’t heard of Team Rubicon before and because she and Art had been scammed in the past, she was highly suspicious of anyone offering “free” assistance. While the rain poured, Coffin asked Drahozal if she would like to get out of the weather and sit in the truck and get warm while he learned more about the damage to the property.

Drahozal obliged and as the Greyshirt and homeowner talked and she learned more about the veteran-led disaster response organization, her entire demeanor changed. As the rain washed across the truck, she told stories of her brother who had retired out of the Army after serving 20 years, as well as her nephew who was currently in the Air Force. Before long, Coffin was generating an order for debris removal and sawyer work. As the conversation ended, Coffin told Drahozal to go inside, get warm, and not to come back out in the rain. Team Rubicon would be there in a couple of days to handle the clean-up. As she left the vehicle, tears were forming in her eyes.

Even the side yard of the Cedar Rapids home was filled with debris.

Two days later a large team of Greyshirts descended upon the property and, over the course of the day, cut down and removed several extremely dangerous snags and widowmakers from around the house. The family watched the progress in amazement. Within hours, Team Rubicon had removed all of the tree debris that seemed insurmountable obstacles to the Drahozal’s, and that Rukhsana had told them was filling her with a sense of hopelessness.

Later, Diane Mack, incident commander for Team Rubicon’s derecho response, nicknamed Operation Fifth Season, had an opportunity to visit the family and their damaged property. “The damage to the trees was heartbreaking,” she said, “but Rukhsana and Art were so strong despite all the changes to their landscape.

Through tears, Rukhsana Drahozal called the Greyshirts ‘saints and angels,’ thanking them time and again. “I just applaud that whole team that was here. I appreciate them all so much,” said Drahozal. “You did a million dollars’ worth of work for us and I’m so thankful for the assistance.”

Team Rubicon Greyshirts with the Drahozal’s after the tree was removed from the front yard.