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A year after derecho, governments still deciding what they’ll do better next time
Even without official reports, some agencies lay plans to speed aid to residents after severe weather
CEDAR RAPIDS — As soon as the winds died down Aug. 10, 2020, the calls started pouring in.
Chainsaw accidents. Falls off roofs. People without power unable to operate their oxygen machines. Stress and heat stroke and pure exhaustion following an exceptionally strong storm that toppled power lines, yanked down trees and disrupted communications across Linn County.
“After the derecho occurred, we did 97 transports that day,” said Keith Rippy, executive director of the Area Ambulance Service based in Linn County. “The following two days, we did over 100 transports each day and very close to 200 calls for service each day. I’ve been here 16 years and there’s never been anything like that.”
The Ambulance Service, which serves Cedar Rapids, Marion and 15 surrounding communities, had good response times considering the challenges of the derecho, but Rippy said he would do some things differently next time a storm of such widespread magnitude struck.
Like keep more spare tires on hand. With fallen trees, broken glass and housing materials strewn across streets, ambulances kept getting flat tires that required towing them back to the garage or fixing in the field, Rippy said.
It was challenging enough, even without the flats, to navigate ambulances around blocked streets to get to patients. In the future when severe weather is predicted, Rippy said he may dispatch teams to locations in the community before the storm hits so they are already in position and more broadly dispersed.
“If this were to occur again, based on what we’ve learned, we would start moving resources sooner,” Rippy said.
How soon to review?
Now a year after the derecho, state, county and city officials still are finishing formal after-action reviews focusing on what lesson were learned and what steps should be taken to more urgently come to the aid of citizens who — days after the storm — frequently struggled to find food and gas and often shelter. Reports are expected later this month.
Most experts agree a prolonged delay of an after-action review following a natural disaster can cause details of what worked and didn’t to grow stale. Moreover, governments need to be able to implement needed changes before another disaster strikes.
The World Health Organization recommends a review be done within three months to make sure stakeholders still are around and can freshly remember what happened, according to a 2019 report in the journal 'Globalization and Health.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took just over five months to complete its after-action report on the agency's response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina. The Naples (Florida) Fire Department did an after-action review in three months after Hurricane Irma hit there in September 2017.
The Omaha Public Power District has started an in-house review of a July 10 derecho that knocked out power to 188,000 homes and businesses, some for as long as a week, the Omaha World Herald reported. Officials there expect the review to be complete by midwinter.
Reviews delayed, but still in ‘window’
Steve O’Konek, Linn County Emergency Management Agency coordinator, told The Gazette in February the agency would gather information from its partners — including cities and nonprofit groups — to compile a review document by June. The review would focus on logistics, operations, communications and mass care of people displaced or needing services, he said.
Under state law, each county in Iowa has an Emergency Management Commission that is made up of elected officials or people they choose to represent them. Linn County’s commission has 20 seats — for a county supervisor, the sheriff and mayors of each municipality.
Minutes from the Emergency Management Commission’s meetings in December, January and February do not show significant discussion among these elected officials about the derecho. Agendas for the April and May meetings, for which minutes are not yet public, also do not include items about the derecho review.
The commission did not hold meetings last fall, in the months right after the derecho.
“The Commission meets when there is business to conduct,” O’Konek said. “Sometimes there is no business and nothing on the agenda, so they don't hold a meeting.”
According to meeting minutes, the major topic discussed by the commission in the last six months has been how Linn County can retain use of an outdoor siren system now that the Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo is decommissioning. Owner NextEra Energy Resources has said it will donate the sirens, but the county is evaluating how much it will cost to maintain the sirens.
Cedar Rapids agreed in March to pay Atchison Consulting, of Cottontown, Tenn., $25,000 to lead the city’s after-action review.
“We’re a little later than we wanted to be because of the COVID pandemic and vaccine rollouts at the time,” Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith said, adding that when he started earlier this year making calls to consultants who do process reviews, many were busy helping coordinate vaccine distribution.
The Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in March solicited bids for a vendor to “plan, develop and manage a multistep After Action Report and associated improvement plan based on the emergency management effort of the State of Iowa in response to the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho,” according to a request for proposals. The state signed a $51,150 deal, also with Atchison, on May 26.
“As with all the after-action reports we do, we will use it to improve our planning, training, and exercise efforts, which will ultimately lead to an improved response effort in the future,” state Homeland Security spokeswoman Lucinda Parker said in an email.
Smith said he thought completing the reviews in about a year was “within that window” of other agencies that have dealt with natural disasters. Linn County Supervisor Louis Zumbach, who has served on the Linn County Emergency Management Commission since January, agrees.
“I do not believe that taking a year to evaluate and review a disaster the scale of the derecho is out of line,” he said.
Although those final reports still are not available, officials have been talking among themselves about lessons learned in the 2020 derecho.
With widespread power outages and spotty cell service after the 2020 derecho, Eastern Iowans weren’t able to watch the weather newscast or even check it online. Smith would like to see Cedar Rapids install small weather stations on city buildings so emergency responders can have localized forecasts to supplement other reports.
Marion Fire Chief Deb Krebill said the storm made her realize the city needed an updated emergency plan.
“We had no MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with organizations to shelter people,” she said. “We had to do that on the fly.”
The American Red Cross, tasked with providing shelter after disasters, conducted an informal review soon after the derecho and determined it should have had more emergency shelters, even with the risks of coronavirus, Josh Murray, communications director for the Red Cross's Nebraska-Iowa region, said in February.
“During the derecho, we were trying to get everyone in hotels without having a congregate shelter location to avoid any spread of COVID,” he said. “Moving forward, we will activate more congregate shelters early in the response with increased (personal protective equipment), then move people to non-congregate hotel sheltering.”
The Red Cross’s formal after-action review happened in February, Murray said last month. Changes discussed then include recruiting more local volunteers and making use of virtual workers to support some tasks remotely.
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