116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Jen Winter did not expect to play an instrumental role in responding to natural disasters when she became Cedar Rapids’ public works director in 2015.
But as Winter prepares to move to hurricane-prone Florida, she told The Gazette she hopes to help other cities become more resilient to the threat of natural disasters — armed with lessons she learned from fighting floods and guiding the cleanup of a community devastated by last summer’s derecho.
“I think having a derecho in Cedar Rapids is a very good example of you just never really know what you need to be prepared for as a public works department or as a city, so I’m really hoping that I can have the opportunity to help other public works departments and other cities on their resiliency and their disaster preparedness,” she said.
Winter, whose last day is today, plans to take some time off before returning to the private sector. Before taking the public sector job in Cedar Rapids, she was regional director for the HR Green engineering firm in Cedar Rapids.
During her tenure with the city, Winter and about 200 public works employees also dealt with the 2016 flood that threatened the city but was largely contained with flood control measures.
While consultants can help cities they work with, Winter said, that experience differs from working for a city every day, being in a decision-making role, understanding all the facets of disaster response and knowing how to prepare for one.
“I think this experience has been invaluable, and it puts me in a situation that makes me, I would say, a much more valuable resource as a consultant because I have had the experience firsthand to understand what it’s like to be in their shoes,” Winter said.
Winter had been in her position for about a year and a half before the 2016 flood, when Winter and her team swiftly created temporary barriers, brought in temporary pumps and undertook other steps to contain the Cedar River and prevent a flood as devastating as the one in 2008.
After that, she said, the city team took extra steps to better prepare for future disasters and to train and understand the incident command system.
The derecho, though, brought new challenges that city staff had to grapple with while in the middle of a pandemic. Not only did staff have to strategize on how to safely communicate and respond to the aftermath of the storm’s hurricane-force winds, but downed power lines and cell towers hampered communication.
"Overall, because so many people in city had been through this a couple of times, people knew what they needed to do, so we were able to mobilize and get to work very quickly,” Winter said.
Streets, flood protection improved
Disasters were not all that marked Winter’s six-year stint in City Hall.
Shortly before Winter came on board, voters had approved the 1-percent local-option sales tax to fund the 10-year Paving for Progress street repair program. The tax took effect July 1, 2014.
So far under the program, the city has reconstructed or rehabilitated more than 60 linear miles of roadway in all quadrants of the city. City officials are preparing to ask voters to renew the tax on the November ballot.
“It’s very hard to drive around the city and not into road construction somewhere, which, while I understand can be very frustrating, I think is also a sign that we are really working around the entire city and using this money to make sure that we are making improvements all over the city,” Winter said.
Construction on the city’s $750 million permanent flood control system to protect both the east and west sides of the Cedar River began after the City Council adopted the master plan in 2015, also around the time Winter started. Work will extend well beyond 2030.
Winter said she wishes she could see the project through, given that it incorporates levees and flood gates with recreational amenities.
“Everybody loves the river, and the river is wonderful, but it can be very dangerous and very scary,” Winter said. “There are a lot of people putting time and effort into this flood control system to make sure that it is built not only to protect us against (flooding), but to allow people to enjoy the river more in times of non-flood.”
Role has been a ‘great experience’
To find a new director, Cedar Rapids has hired Ohio-based Novak Consulting Group for $29,500 to find Winter’s successor. Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler will fill the role on an interim basis.
The job pays $128,711 to $180,196.
Cedar Rapids is a wonderful city with great people on the city team and within the community, Winter said, adding that she especially enjoyed working with City Manager Jeff Pomeranz.
“I came from the private sector, and I think really it was watching him early on and seeing Jeff’s vision for the city that made me really want to be a part of it and take this job, and I’m really glad I did,” Winter said. “It has been a really great experience and there are definitely a lot of people in the city that I will miss very much.”
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