116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Mayuri Farlinger remembers the ceiling tiles falling, fire alarms blaring, gas leaks and hurricane-force winds mangling exterior gates as last year’s derecho tore through Alliant Energy’s operations center in northeast Cedar Rapids.
“Three-quarters of our roof was in our parking lot,” said Farlinger, Alliant Energy’s regional director of operations.
On the other side of town, Carter Kramer had some “sleepless nights” as president and chief executive officer of CellSite Solutions, a telecommunications equipment provider.
About 30 miles to the south, ImOn Chief Executive Officer Patrice Carroll recalls borrowing cash from her husband so a crew could buy diesel fuel at a gas station accepting only cash.
Across the state in Earlham, ITC Midwest President Dusky Terry recollects that day as “a bit life-changing.”
Now, one year after the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho, Farlinger, Kramer, Carroll and Terry are among many working to make sure essential infrastructure — ranging from utilities and internet to gas stations and grocery stores — is braced for another derecho-like disaster.
“The derecho was termed unprecedented. We’ve never seen a storm like this in Iowa,” Terry said. “Well, that is now precedented, and we have an obligation, we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re prepared for it the next time it does happen because there will be a next time, and we will need to respond.”
Avoiding supply shortages
Two of the lessons learned, several companies said, is the need to bulk up on resources that may be required and the need to make them accessible as quickly as possible.
ITC Midwest, which handles higher-voltage electric transmission lines for utilities such as Alliant, “reviewed and updated” its equipment inventory while working to have warehouses located throughout its service area.
Mediacom is establishing two new national warehouses for disaster recovery, spokeswoman Phyllis Peters said. One of the warehouses, which are expected to be ready by Labor Day, will be in Cedar Rapids.
“To reduce those kinds of delays and potential supply shortages, Mediacom chose a strategy in which we stockpile a greater volume of fiber and other essential materials in these special-purpose warehouses,” Peters said in an email.
CellSite Solutions doubled the number of fuel tanks available for its recovery efforts. Kramer, the company’s president and chief executive officer, believes having equipment quickly accessible during storm seasons is another important step.
“A lot of these carriers specifically have the equipment it needs to handle a disaster,” Kramer said. “The question is, ‘Where in the country is it?’”
ImOn established quick access to cash that goes beyond what is in Carroll’s husband’s wallet.
“We don’t have more cash sitting around, but we have a clear path to cash that will be exercised earlier on,” Carroll said.
Limitations of remote monitoring
Cellphone companies and utilities have relied on remote monitoring to see when and where damage occurs. That was problematic during 2020’s derecho.
“When all of the underground fiber connectivity was lost, a lot of the monitoring was also lost,” Kramer said.
As CellSite Solutions hurried to make repairs for its area customers — Verizon, U.S. Cellular and American Tower — his crews had “kind of a blindfolded approach.”
“If we lose that ability to monitor these sites remotely, it’s really difficult to know what you’re going up against,” Kramer said.
It also affected Alliant’s advanced metering infrastructure that allows the utility to remotely monitor whether a customer has power. The remote meters use the same low-frequency radio wave technology as cellphones and baby monitors.
Farlinger said Alliant’s advanced metering infrastructure was “really helpful” once "the communication infrastructure was back up and working as it needed to.“
At ImOn, Carroll said the Cedar Rapids-based company is working to improve its monitoring system.
A bright spot: Kramer said many of the cellphone towers emerged from the storm structurally “fine.”
“I assumed that there would be more actual structural issues with some of the macro infrastructure, like the towers themselves,” Kramer said. “It really is a testament to what the engineering standards are in the United States for these structures.”
Communication becomes focus
Many Iowans had challenges communicating with their internet providers following the derecho.
Mediacom initially predicted most of is customers would regain internet service within a day of electricity coming back. But it took some customers more than 50 days to regain service.
ImOn was “so overwhelmed” trying to communicate with customers, too, in the wake of the storm, Carroll said.
“We were inundated with calls that were way beyond the call centers’ ability to handle,” Carroll said. ImOn still has a “widespread disaster communications plan” for its customers on its to-do list.
Mediacom and ImOn have bolstered efforts to develop community Wi-Fi hot spots so customers have a place to go in case of another prolonged outage.
Carroll said she has also spoken with Alliant and city government to ensure greater communication with utilities in future disasters.
“We’ve learned that we need to have more contact with the power company so that we follow power,” Carroll said. “We can’t touch a pole until the power company has released that pole.”
West Des Moines-based retailer Hy-Vee now uses Zipline, a messaging app, to streamline communication with its employees in case of a disaster.
“With this tool, we can make sure everyone has the most accurate information, even if they can’t make it to their Hy-Vee store, … check email or view a notification on an employee board,” spokeswoman Christina Gayman said in an email.
Building codes remain same
In the 12 months since the derecho’s hurricane-force winds walloped businesses and homes, the state’s building codes have not changed.
The codes require structures to withstand winds of up to 115 mph — which is short of the 140-mph gusts experienced during the derecho.
Ljerka Vasiljevic, deputy building code commissioner at the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said updating statewide building codes is a lengthy process.
“Many different steps are involved in adapting new code,” Vasiljevic said.
That includes consulting stakeholders, state agencies and the Governor’s Office to ensure “we are not going to put any additional burdens on citizens of Iowa,” Vasiljevic said.
“You don’t want to adopt the code that is going to make the building (of the future) more expensive than the building being built now,” Vasiljevic said.
She said the state codes are based on international standards and was last updated in 2015.
“They will be in place until we change to a newer edition of ICC (International Code Council) code,” Vasiljevic said.
The building codes in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City mirror the state standards for wind resistance.
The cities are not required to use the state codes as their own, Vasiljevic said. Only a “very, very small percentage” of municipalities are required to use Iowa’s codes.
Efforts to bury lines continue
The preparation for the next severe storm includes burying utility and telecommunication lines underground.
Alliant is considering “accelerating our underground plans,” Farlinger said. But that comes at a cost.
“It’s not reasonable to think that we’re going to take everything underground because of the economics,” ImOn’s Carroll said.
If Alliant buried every aboveground power line at one time, Farlinger said it’d come at an “exorbitant cost for our customers.”
ITC Midwest, which handles higher-voltage transmission lines for utilities such as Alliant, would see costs multiply by between four and nine if it buried its lines. The company is “constantly updating our design criteria” for the electric system, though, Terry said.
That includes after the derecho. ITC Midwest’s design engineers, Terry explained, “have done a lot of work looking at that damage.” The company also adjusted its designs after the 2019 ice storm in northern Iowa.
The process of implementing those changes is not as simple as snapping one’s fingers, though. “I wish it was that easy,” Terry said.
Farlinger said Alliant’s continued push toward renewable energy can help with the next disaster recovery.
As Alliant continues to invest in renewable energy, that will “bring power closer to its source,” Farlinger said.
“It just has less mileage to travel,” Farlinger said. “The exposure from the generation source to where it’s being consumed becomes shorter and shorter. So there’s less exposure.”
About 43.8 percent of Alliant’s energy generated in Iowa comes from renewable sources — a dramatic increase from 9.9 percent in 2018.
Floods were ‘training wheels’
Cedar Rapids companies are no strangers to natural disasters, including the 2008 flood and one largely averted in 2016 thanks to a herculean effort.
As such, ImOn’s disaster recovery plan was geared more toward a flood than an inland hurricane, Carroll said.
The 2008 flood “felt like it was training wheels for this,” Carroll said.
Peters said Mediacom is training more employees with “aerial construction capabilities” following the 2020 derecho.
Alliant has updated its training exercises after the storm so that crews are better prepared for another derecho.
“I don’t think we ever would have predicted that we would have seen 140-mph winds for an hour-straight in this city, but that’s what we had,” Farlinger said. “Events like that and events like the 2008 flood create these tabletop exercise conversations that are that much more robust and that are much more encompassing.”
While companies are confident they’re better prepared for another derecho, there’s one consensus. There’s no “silver bullet,” as Farlinger described it.
Even burying utility lines underground, Farlinger said, is not “bulletproof.”
“During the derecho, we saw in this city especially huge tree and root systems rip out concrete sidewalks, streets, and at times it was pulling the underground infrastructure with it,” Farlinger said.
Carroll noticed the same thing with ImOn’s telecommunications lines.
“Much of our underground plant was also damaged because of trees or plants that actually pulled it up,” Carroll said.
Terry, from ITC Midwest, said it’s technically possible to have a “derecho-proof” utility system. But t would come with an “extremely expensive” price tag.
“You’re going to price people out of the ability to pay for electricity,” Terry said.
There’s also the challenge of figuring out what the next unprecedented storm will look like and how soon it will strike.
“It’s easy to underestimate the power of Mother Nature and what it’s capable of,” Kramer said.
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