IOWA DERECHO 2020

Cedar Rapids residents, frustrated by slow official response to derecho, take care of their own

Officials, disaster organizations say storm hindered their response

Volunteer Hayden Cronin of Marion, Iowa, shops for breakfast cereal as she fills a list of items needed by a resident at
Volunteer Hayden Cronin of Marion, Iowa, shops for breakfast cereal as she fills a list of items needed by a resident at the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page site, 5001 First Avenue NE in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Organizer Raymond Siddell saw a need in the community following the Aug. 10 storm to provide food, supplies and volunteer help to residents affected by the storm that wasn’t being met. By traditional aid organizations. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After the winds died down and Cedar Rapids began the arduous task of cleaning up after the Aug. 10 derecho’s devastating effect, the helpers arrived.

Almost immediately, residents with chain saws helped clear off downed trees. Neighbors handed out food and water, sharing generators and what little power they had left as the electricity stayed off for several days.

“Within hours of the storm, you could hear chain saws and people banding together to get resources and figure out their situation,” Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers said. “It shows the resiliency of this community.”

Several grassroots efforts also began gathering and distributing donations to displaced area residents, which more often than not was run by individuals who were facing the same challenges in their own homes.

For example, when people heard about the devastation at apartment complexes such as Cedar Terrace, where its majority immigrant residents were sleeping outside, dozens dropped off supplies for the displaced families.

Despite the support felt among their fellow residents, many said those efforts were the sole help Cedar Rapids residents had received to cope with the disaster after relief organizations and local officials failed to step up in a timely manner.

“They should have had people out here immediately,” said Raymond Siddell, a Center Point resident who created the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page on Facebook. “When I reached out (to relief organizations), it was a very disappointing response.”

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And that sentiment has been a common refrain across the city, as residents left in the dark or still grappling with damaged homes say they feel abandoned by officials.

While Rogers understands the anger some residents have expressed, he said never before has the county’s emergency response had to grapple with a storm so widespread in its devastation — and, on top of it all, a pandemic.

“It was the worst perfect storm to try and get resources out as fast as possible,” Rogers said.

What was the response?

Given the widespread, destructive force of the storm, every line of communication was down, in some cases for some days, therefore crippling a quick assessment and response time.

None of the scenarios in the county’s regular emergency response trainings had prepared officials for that possibility, Rogers said, meaning the ability to receive and disseminate information “was almost at a standstill.”

Benton County County Emergency Management Coordinator Scott Hansen shared a similar scenario for his county. The agency’s ability to assess and respond to the damage was significantly hindered because of the lack of phone, internet and cell service. Crews had to travel across the county to ascertain the damage in person — a time-consuming process.

» TIMELINE: A timeline of the derecho response in Iowa

The floods of 2008 affected just parts of Cedar Rapids, while the derecho “was in every neighborhood of every city in the county,” Rogers said.

“While I understand criticism, it’s important for people to understand the scale of the storm and how it impacted every method we have to respond,” Rogers said.

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Disaster relief organizations, including United Way of East Central Iowa and the local Red Cross chapter, were grappling with the same issues that stalled their immediate response.

The Red Cross had established a shelter on Monday night at a Cedar Rapids apartment complex after officials were contacted by Linn County Emergency Management, recalled Pami Erickson, executive director of the Red Cross South and Eastern Iowa chapter.

She could not say how many volunteers were on the ground on that Monday or Tuesday, Aug. 10 and 11, relatively soon after the storm hit.

By this past Wednesday, more than a week after the storm, the Red Cross officials said they had more than 200 volunteers on the ground and had provided 188 overnight stays in congregate shelters — including the shelter at Veterans Memorial Coliseum that wasn’t opened until Friday, Aug. 14.

Officials also said they provided food, water and 900 hotel rooms “to people across Iowa who were affected.”

“I’ve heard people are frustrated because it wasn’t quick,” Erickson said. “But what is ‘quick’? Quick like ordering McDonald’s?”

Some residents pointed to the fact the National Guard wasn’t sent out to survey the damage and to help with search-and-rescue and medical efforts until Friday, Aug. 14 — four days after the storm.

Gov. Kim Reynolds also received criticism for the pace on asking for federal aid. She sent a request to President Donald Trump for an expedited Presidential Major Disaster Declaration on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 16, nearly a week later.

Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page

In the days following the storm, one grassroots organization grew into one of the largest volunteer efforts in the area, gathering donated food and supplies from across the country and distributing them to thousands of area residents.

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Each day, volunteers with the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page hand out hot food while others drive across the city to deliver supplies to residents who call its hotline — (319) 432-9754.

The page, organized by Siddell, also has collected more than $115,000 in donations

The effort became so large, in fact, that organizers moved the resource center site this past week from an office space on Armar Drive in Cedar Rapids to two empty storefronts about a block away, at 5001 First Ave. SE.

Siddell said he never expected the page — created to be a hub of derecho-related communication among the community — to grow as it did. He initially had been waiting for word of an official response to pass along, but “it wasn’t happening.”

So he decided to open a center to distribute donations, which has been met with a huge response from the community, he said.

“It goes to show that if you can’t show up, someone else will,” Siddell said.

With the rise of the social media, giving directly to those affected by natural disasters has become much easier, and therefore much more common, said Patrick Rooney, executive associate dean for academic programs and professor of philanthropic studies and economics at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Siddell said he also had heard concern about the effectiveness of his effort, given that he does not have a not-for-profit status. The organizers behind the Facebook page ad only recently had aligned it with a not-for-profit called the Iowa Giving Crew.

Rogers, the Linn County supervisor, said officials always caution residents to be wary of donating to fraudulent organizations that pop up following natural disasters.

In addition, Rooney did point out these community-led organizations, while they may be well-intentioned, are not as effective as large scale agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

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However, Rogers said community response efforts such as the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Page play a major role, often becoming the eyes and ears in the areas where officials haven’t yet reached.

“It’s too large for any entity or government to solve itself,” Rogers said. “When neighbors or groups organically form, it exponentially helps the recovery effort and distribution of resources where it’s needed most.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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