An unexpected gift

Kaufman family’s derecho story featured in new book

Author Leah Kaufman (right) and her dad Mike Kaufman (left) of rural Dysart stand in front of the third iteration of a hoop building on their property. The original hoop house was destroyed in the July 2011 Midwest Derecho, rebuilt, and again taken out by the August 2020 derecho. Mike survived the July 11, 2011 derecho on his knees inside the hoop building as it came down – a story captured by Leah in her essay “The Unexpected Gift,” now featured in a recent “Chicken Soup for the Soul” compilation. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

Leah Kaufman, 20, of rural Dysart received a truly unexpected gift for her tenth birthday back on July 11, 2011 – her entire family survived a derecho that pulverized their home, annihilated their old-growth pine grove, took out their hoop house, and nearly killed her dad, Mike Kaufman.

And now that story – a story much too familiar to many eastern Iowans following the August 10, 2020 derecho that barrelled through the state – is part of the book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times Won’t Last But Tough People Will: 101 Stories about Overcoming Life’s Challenges” compiled by Amy Newmark.

Kaufman originally wrote the story “The Unexpected Gift” – an essay that details her family’s experience during the July 2011 Derecho – as part of Union High School teacher Kerrie Michael’s English class.

After heading off to Hawkeye Community College following high school graduation in 2020, Kaufman refined the story further as part of a liberal arts conference.

Her great aunt LeAnn Thieman – a published author – read Kaufman’s story and encouraged her to submit the essay into the pool for a planned “Chicken Soup for Soul” compilation.

The book was published this year; Kaufman’s story is part of Chapter 9: Face Your Fears.

The story details what happened to Kaufman, her mother Barb, her father Mike, and her older brother Wesley that fateful, hot, early Monday morning in July 2011 as the life-altering windstorm tore through their farmstead, Kaufman Club Lambs.

The night before the derecho, Kaufman had fallen asleep in her parents’ bed while waiting for Mike and Wes to arrive back from an out-of-state sheep show.

In the wee hours of her tenth birthday, she was abruptly woken by her mom to move downstairs due to the storm – her brother and dad had made it back home but her dad was outside tending to the sheep as the storm bore down.

“The wind roared like a freight train,” Kaufman writes in the story. “I remember hearing a soft ‘Oh, my God’ from my mom. … My mom told me to stay put, not realizing I was frozen with fear, while she went to the attached garage to see if she could spot Dad.”

Barb couldn’t find Mike in the din of the storm and ultimately made the decision to stay with her two children in the basement.

“That was a hard call – should I go out there or stay with my kids?” Barb said on a recent Sunday afternoon in late December as she sat in her living room, her husband and daughter retelling their family’s story to the Telegraph.

Mike spent much of the derecho on his knees in the hoop building – some 225 ewes huddled on the far side – as it collapsed around him, wearing nothing but his underwear and a pair of work boots.

He had rushed from sleep to the hoop building to close the curtains as the derecho arrived, leaving no time to dress.

After the storm passed through and the winds began to lessen, Mike made his way back to his family. He looked transparent, Kaufman said, like all the color had been drained from his body.

“He was wet and cold and shaking,” Kaufman writes. “As my brother held up the flashlight, I could see Dad’s blue eyes were so pale that they looked transparent. … He kept saying, ‘It is really bad, really bad.’ But to me, it couldn’t be all that bad. My dad was with us, and he was safe.”

As the hoop building began to tear away, Mike Army-crawled 15 feet through the howling, racing winds to a nearby barn for shelter – the oldest structure on the property, circa 1945, and the only building to survive the derecho.

The Kaufmans lost their house and 43 trees – trees that dated back to when Norma Anders, for whom Dysart’s public library is named, lived on the farmstead.

The events of that day still resonate with the family all these years later as they reminisce in their since-rebuilt living room — rebuilding after the derecho meant they had to take their home down to the studs.

“We aren’t really loving the wind anymore,” Barb said, “PTSD is real.”

When asked how her parents reacted to the story the first time they read it, Kaufman said her dad cried.

Mike is a man of few words, it would seem, but it is clear during the family’s conversation with the Telegraph he loves his children and wife deeply.

Asked if he thought he was going to die on his knees in the hoop building that day, he nods.

“I thought he was,” Barb added.

Almost a decade later, the derecho of August 10, 2020, took out the very same hoop building after it had been rebuilt following the 2011 derecho.

“Same story, more clothes,” Barb joked in reference to her husband’s experience in the second derecho.

Mike rode out the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho again on the farm but this time fully clothed in his truck which he had pulled inside an outbuilding.

The recent wind event on Wednesday, Dec. 15 – which featured sustained wind gusts in excess of 70 mph and has now been categorized as a derecho as well – also put the family on edge.

“None of us like it when the wind starts to blow,” Mike said.

Kaufman for her part finds she must check to make sure her dad is in the house ahead of any storm now.

“I call and ask if he has his chores done.”

That night following the July 11, 2011 derecho, Kaufman celebrated her tenth birthday in the basement with a simple dinner brought over by a family friend.

And while Kaufman has had plenty of better birthdays since that historic day, she said she has received no greater gift.

“Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times Won’t Last But Tough People Will” is available in paperback through Bookshop.org, an online bookseller with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores, and through Amazon.com.

A signed copy by Kaufman of the book was recently donated to the Norma Anders Public Library in Dysart.