The EF-3 tornado that ripped through Marshalltown on July 19, 2018, changed Jake Rowley’s life in more ways than he could have ever imagined.
As a resident of the community, the storm personally impacted him, but it also opened his mind to a world of possibilities as to how his specific skill set and background in tree removal and landscaping could help others affected by natural disasters in the future.
When shocking news of the powerful tornadoes across Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas reached Rowley, he knew he had to do something. So he did what he does best, organizing a massive donation drive at a few local drop-off spots and packing up for a five-day trip to Mayfield, Ky., with plans to leave on Sunday morning at 6 a.m.
“It sounds bad, but I’ve been waiting for another tornado — another opportunity for a tornado — because the other two that we’ve been able to go help with floods, and I’m not quite an expert with floods,” he said. “I’m really good with trees, and I can do any tree removal… A tornado really provides a unique situation to where it’s a skill set I definitely already have.”
So far, at least 80 people have died as a result of the tornadoes, and the total is expected to climb as more bodies are discovered. On Friday, it was declared the deadliest tornado in the history of the state of Kentucky.
Rowley is a proud lifelong Marshalltonian, and he still lives in the house where he was brought home from the hospital. He previously ran a landscaping and lawn care business, Mid-Iowa Lawn Care, until about 2017, when he shifted his focus to tree removal and started his new company, Junk Relief.
Inspired by the experience the Marshalltown relief effort provided him — and searching for happiness after the passing of his late father — Rowley traveled to eastern Nebraska in 2019 after historic floods left what Gov. Pete Ricketts referred to as “the most extensive damage our state has ever experienced.” As a volunteer, he felt he was able to test his skills without worrying too much about making mistakes.
“That was really what put it in motion, actually, and what gave me the ambition or the want to figure out how we could do this again,” Rowley said. “I was sitting in the truck — honestly, even as a full grown man, bawling my eyes out — and across my phone comes this flood out of Nebraska.”
With support from local officials like Mayor Joel Greer and then-Sheriff Steve Hoffman, Rowley ultimately raised between $75,000 and $100,000 worth of goods and hauled them to Nebraska, and he spent an entire month in the affected area. Not long after, he met his girlfriend, Mercedes Walker, and they’ve since welcomed a son into the world three days after the 2020 derecho.
A kindred spirit
Like Rowley, Lake Sulc’s life has been undeniably shaped by the 2018 tornado to the point that the Nebraska native moved his family and his business, Exterior + Home Remodeling, to Marshalltown in its aftermath. It’s unsurprising, then, that the two have become fast friends — although they joke that they still can’t remember how exactly they met, they were soon discussing where to buy specific parts for skid loaders — and Sulc, along with Walker, is joining Rowley on his trip to Mayfield.
“This one’s kind of new for us because we’ve always wanted to actually be able to go as a nonprofit and actually fully help and try to kind of keep away from the business part,” Sulc said. “So when (Rowley) offered the opportunity with his know-how, it gives us that extra chance to go and do something aside from business.”
This time around, Rowley and company have learned a few lessons from previous experiences, and they’re headed to the Bluegrass State with a more professional operation — dumpsters, dump trailers, chainsaws, shovels and rakes. Sulc has a camper, a huge advantage considering Rowley has slept in tents on 40 degree nights in the past.
Despite feeling like he has a better grasp on how to help now that he’s gained some experience, Rowley still lives by one of the cardinal rules of disasters and disaster relief: always expect the unexpected.
“Every single time we go to one, I think I’ve got it all figured out, and then there’s always something that changes. There’s always something different in every single one,” he said. “But I think with a storm of this magnitude, there’s really no chance of not having enough to do or enough to hand out once we get down there.”
In the long term, Rowley hopes to establish a disaster relief nonprofit — he cites the United Cajun Navy and its president, Todd Terrell, as primary inspirations — make it a full-time job and earn enough income to raise his family. Walker, who is embarking on her first trip, can’t help but think of her own loved ones when she sees images of devastation like the ones coming out of Kentucky.
“It makes me very emotional to see stuff like that. I don’t know why, but it does. I think it’s mostly because of the fact that I have kids too, and it could happen here,” she said.
Donations can be left at Exterior + Home Remodeling (on Iowa Avenue across from Mitchell Funeral Home) or Thrifty Buzzarr in the Marshalltown Mall until Saturday at 5 p.m.