Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Did federal aid come in 'record time' after derecho?

On Aug. 25, on the second night of the 2020 Republican National Convention, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds praised President Donald Trump and his administration for recent aid to Iowa following last month’s natural disaster.

During her nearly four-minute remarks, Reynolds applauded Trump for the quick assistance following the Aug. 10 derecho, which caused billions of dollars’ worth in damage across the state and was described by Reynolds as the worst storm in the state’s history.

“In 2019, when 100-year floods breached every levee and devastated communities large and small along the Missouri River in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, the president approved our request for aid in record time — in just two days,” Reynolds stated in a recorded message. “Well this year, he did it less than 24 hours.”

Analysis

Claim 1: Within the first sentence, there are two claims. The first we’ll check is the statement about 100-year flood levels on the Missouri River breaching “every levee” and damaging communities in three states.

Graded a B

In mid-March 2019, the combined effects of heavy snowfall, frigid temperatures and a late winter storm produced heavy flooding along the Missouri River and its tributaries in Iowa and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The damage in Iowa alone was estimated at $1.6 billion, according to the Associated Press.

Forty-two locations along the Missouri River Valley, which spans from South Dakota and into western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, set record river levels, according to The Weather Channel, topping the previous record crests during flooding in 2011.

National Weather Service records of its river gauges in Nebraska and Iowa support Reynolds’ claim about 100-year flood levels. According to its records of the Nebraska City gauge, the river reached the 1-in-100-year level March 16, 2019.

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The Missouri River basins contain thousands of miles of levees, or earthen flood barriers that line the river.

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said about 70 miles of levees it operates in Iowa were damaged or destroyed, racking up an estimated $350 million in repair costs. About 175 miles of non-federally managed levees also needed repair, according to the Associated Press.

The Associated Press also reported the Army Corps stated “virtually every Missouri River levee along a 100-mile stretch south of Omaha, Neb., was breached or overtopped.”

We give this claim an A.

Claim 2: Reynolds stated Iowa’s request for a federal disaster declaration following the 2019 floods was approved by the president in the “record time” of two days.

In providing sourcing to the Fact Checker team, the Governor’s Office provided a letter sent to the president from Reynolds requesting a major disaster declaration for 57 counties. It was dated March 21, 2019. Trump approved the disaster declaration on March 23, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Flooding began in Iowa on March 12, meaning the governor’s letter for aid was sent more than a week later, according to FEMA.

The Governor’s Office did not offer clarity for Reynolds’ statement that federal aid came in 2019 in “record time,” which seems to refer to the fastest time recorded between a natural disaster and a federal disaster declaration.

When reviewing records of FEMA’s declared disasters in Iowa over the past 10 years, there were no instances of an emergency declaration or a major disaster declaration being issued within two days of the incident.

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When reviewing historic disasters FEMA has responded to nationwide, there are instances of major disaster declarations coming sooner than two days. FEMA aid was approved the same day for disasters that include a 3.0 magnitude earthquake in California in January 1994 and on the same day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in 2005.

Reynolds is correct that Trump approved the federal disaster declaration two days after she sent a letter requesting the aid — which is quick when compared with other emergency declarations in Iowa. But FEMA records show the timing of the approval came about 11 days after the floods of 2019 first began to impact the state.

We give this claim a B.

Claim 3: Next up is the claim that Trump approved federal disaster relief following the derecho in “less than 24 hours.”

FEMA records show Trump approved a disaster declaration for the state Aug. 17, one day after Reynolds sent the request for federal aid.

However, Reynolds’ request was sent to federal officials six days after the derecho tore through the state Aug. 10.

Historically, the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency management work with local entities to gather damage estimates to be included in the letter requesting aid. However, Reynolds told The Gazette and other media outlets that local agencies, still in the midst of storm response, were not able to complete detailed damage estimates.

Days before she submitted the formal request, Reynolds spoke with the president the day after the storm, she indicated during her RNC speech. She also spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Iowa three days after the derecho for a campaign event in Des Moines.

Trump approved only a portion of the state’s full request for federal aid, and initially did not include the request for individual assistance for residents in 27 counties that saw major damage.

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The president did approve individual assistance for Linn County residents on Aug. 20, 10 days later. Weeks later, on Sept. 1, 10 more counties in Eastern Iowa were approved for FEMA’s individual assistance program, which offers aid to disaster-affected homeowners, renters and business owners.

While it is notable that the request for federal aid came nearly a week after the derecho, the time period between Reynolds’ letter and Trump’s approval of FEMA resources was one day. For that, we give this claim a B.

Conclusion

The Trump administration did provide relief to Iowa residents following the derecho and the floods of 2019, but Reynolds’ statement is missing some context.

The time period between Reynolds’ request for federal aid and the presidents’ approval of that aid for both disasters was short. However, Reynolds’ requests came at least a week after both natural disasters took place, which was not quick enough in some residents’ minds.

Of the three claims we checked, we graded two Bs and one A. Overall, we grant Reynolds a B.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm of The Gazette.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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