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Emergency officials begin to ask: What lessons can be learned from derecho?

Former FEMA director expresses concern over communications

Oct 15, 2020 at 8:05 pm
    Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith works Aug. 13 in the Incident Command Center at the Central Fire Station in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    CEDAR RAPIDS — As the horrific winds of the Aug. 10 derecho began to die down, a new crisis was just unfolding for emergency managers: With an entire region’s communications systems imperiled, how could they get a handle on how extensive of a calamity awaited their help?

    How emergency planners address that question in the after-action reviews they are now beginning to conduct could have profound implications for residents like those whose homes were destroyed in the storm and for days knew of few places to turn for help — besides each other.

    Speaking Thursday at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas virtual conference, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate expressed concerns over dealing with a disaster when the public’s usual ways of communicating are not functioning.

    “Your cellphones become bricks,” said Fugate, the longtime hurricane czar in Florida before being named FEMA director in the Obama administration. “On the response side, this is an area I’ve become increasingly concerned about. It really reinforces the need to exercise communication failures. It may not be a windstorm next time. It may be a cyber attack.”

    Locally, the public safety radio system continued to operate after the derecho, said Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek, who also participated in the Iowa Ideas panel with Fugate and Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith.

    “In our case, trying to get a sense of situational awareness was traveling to different locations,” O’Konek said. “The radio system can be used better and more effectively in the future and frankly, we are going to figure out how to do it better. We just have to do that.”

    Smith, who served as incident commander of the city’s emergency operations center after the derecho, said that limited communication capabilities forced the city to go old school: writing information down on paper.

    “We were almost back to the ‘town crier’ type of thing,” Smith said. “We started giving written correspondence to police officers that they could pass out: Where shelters and neighborhood resource centers were, that type of stuff. We gave them to grocery stores and hardware stores because we knew people would go there.”

    As for mutual aid agreements with other communities in the area, O’Konek and Smith both said those systems worked the way they were supposed to.

    O’Konek said that with Linn County being a “risk county” with the Duane Arnold nuclear plant nearby, different agencies already train multiple times a year to respond to various emergencies.

    Even as Duane Arnold is out of service and decommissioning, the agencies will continue to train, he said.

    “In my opinion, the system worked as it should work,” Smith said. “We were operating locally with our partners, mutually, Marion and Hiawatha and they were suffering similar levels of devastation and we were still interacting with them.”

    O’Konek said a challenge was that many of the resources Linn County needed and was asking for also were being sought by other counties.

    “Many agencies were stretched,” he said. “When our county resources are not available, we reach up to the state and the state reaches out to other counties. When we can’t do a state mutual aid agreement, county to county, we get the state to bring in resources. If we can’t do that, the state reaches out regionally or federally.”

    O’Konek said that like with the historic 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids, there is an opportunity for local organizations to analyze how they performed in the derecho.

    “Agencies that participated in this should go back and learn from how they performed in this disaster and what they can do differently.” O’Konek said. “Certainly, there are things that we would all do differently had we had better situational awareness, better communication … but that’s just the nature of disasters. Each disaster creates a certain amount of chaos.”

    O’Konek said Linn County Emergency Management plans on completing an after-action review for all of the agencies’ functions.

    “This is a large, complex incident that was unusual for this area, so I think we can all learn from it,” O’Konek said.

    Smith said the city department has done some after-action reviews of its own, checking in with a couple fire crews at a time, analyzing how the fire department performed in its response.

    “We’ve spent a lot of time meeting with each crew and talking about the response,” Smith said. “Our training department is categorizing and writing up lessons learned. … That’s something we did after the floods of 2008 and 2016.”

    Smith said a goal after a disaster is to make sure whatever knowledge is acquired is passed on to future employees.

    “After the floods of 2008, the water system was not compromised but very close to that, and the city then invested into that,” Smith said. “That was a blessing in this disaster. We were without power and debris was all over the place, but people could go to their tap and get water.”

    Fugate said a good after-action review analyzes what an agency did that worked in the response, but also recognizes things that could be done differently.

    “Don’t focus on people, focus on systems,” Fugate advised. “What you’re really trying to build is a problem-solving engine … Not just how we responded, but how did the public do? How did they respond and get information. A lot of what’s going to happen in the immediate aftermath is neighbors helping neighbors.”

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