116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said Friday that communication was a key issue in responding to last summer’s derecho after hurricane-force winds knocked down power lines and disrupted cell towers, but the city awaits a consultant’s review of the response to determine what should be done differently in another severe storm.
The city in March contracted with Tennessee-based Atchison Consulting Services to conduct an after-action review of its storm response for $25,000. This study is intended to help the city understand disaster response strengths and gaps in preparedness through data collection, analysis and engagement efforts.
“We’ll look at that study to say what could we have done differently, what should we have done differently so we can make sure that we’re as prepared as possible,” Hart said Friday in response to a question about storm preparedness during taping of this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS. “But we had 10 minutes’ warning, and no one — the winds were not 140 miles per hour until they got to Cedar Rapids.”
Greg Buelow, city public safety communications specialist, said in an email the contract deadline — initially June 30 — has been moved to Aug. 31, as the firm has recommended changes before the release of a final document, including “guidance and process documents related to the processes the city uses in response to disasters.” The extension does not change the cost.
Hart said the city was equipped to take on much of the derecho recovery on its own without seeking additional aid from the state beyond the approved disaster aid.
Then-U. S. President Donald Trump had approved Gov. Kim Reynolds’ request for a major presidential disaster declaration, unlocking aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program in Linn County and 26 other derecho-affected counties in Iowa. FEMA also later approved individual assistance for Linn County and at least 11 other counties.
The governor’s office — three days after the Aug. 10, 2020, storm — had approved the deployment of about 100 National Guard engineers to help restore power and utility connections. By then, many residents had begun to call for speedier arrival of Guard forces amid power outages that lasted for days, and for some residents, would go on to last weeks.
“The disaster, because it was a presidential disaster declaration, because it was a part of that, FEMA was in and the Iowa (National) Guard came and helped, so I really don’t think that we were missing anything from the state to handle the derecho, and really from the Legislature. We didn’t have a big ask because we’re pretty resilient and handling a lot of this stuff ourselves,” Hart said.
But he said the Legislature stepped up in one way when Cedar Rapids officials asked for help to reforest the city after losing an estimated 65 percent of its tree canopy.
House File 862, an infrastructure appropriations bill, included an allocation of $250,000 to support community tree planting projects.
Hart said that was a start, but “it’s going to take a decade or more to replenish our trees, and we’ll keep asking.”
This episode of “Iowa Press,” filmed with Hart and Johnston Mayor Paula Dierenfeld, centered discussion on the 2021 legislative session’s impact on city government and other issues affecting Iowa cities.
Responding to a question about COVID-19 pandemic recovery, Hart said the city lost $15 million to $20 million in revenue from the public health crisis.
City officials are reviewing federal guidelines to replenish lost revenues through the approximately $28 million Cedar Rapids is slated to receive from the federal American Rescue Plan, Hart said. The city anticipates receiving about half of the funds next week and the other half in about a year.
Other potential uses for Cedar Rapids’ allocation from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package have not yet been determined as city officials examine the rules for how the stimulus funds may be spent, Hart said.
“We’re also working on the social side of it and people who are really impacted, working with our county to develop a permanent overflow shelter for homeless,” Hart said.
“And we’re going to use some of it to help people finish repairing their homes (that sustained derecho damage). We’re working hard to figure out what the gap is for people who are uninsured or underinsured so we can figure out ways to provide money and services for them. And also small businesses and nonprofits, we’re going to help them, too.”
Despite financial challenges from the pandemic, Hart touted the city’s financial position and budgeting practices to respond to the dueling crises of COVID-19 and the derecho.
The city also is preparing to lose $4 million a year as the Legislature voted this year to phase out “backfill” payments by 2030. The state started making those payments to local governments after lawmakers in 2013 cut commercial property taxes, helping to make up for lost local revenue.
“While $4 million is not a large part of our overall budget, it’s $4 million, so a lot of good things happen with $4 million,” Hart said. “ … We’ll have to figure out how to provide those services without the revenue that we’re receiving.”
Hart and Dierenfeld, both Republicans, were asked “what ever happened to local control in the Republican Party?”
The Cedar Rapids mayor, referencing a new state law barring local governments and schools from passing a face mask policy that exceeded the state’s, said he would have preferred mask policies remained a local-control issue.
The state law change forced Cedar Rapids to do away with its eased mask mandate. Hart’s order had required only vaccinated people to keep wearing masks when social distancing was not possible when the law was passed in May.
“The Legislature does seem to be whittling it away if not taking a big chomp at it sometimes,” Hart said, “but we’ll keep working at that and still keep pushing for local control.”
This week’s episode of “Iowa Press” will air at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 a.m. Saturday and noon Sunday on Iowa PBS and 8:30 a.m. Saturday on Iowa PBS World. The show also can be viewed online at iowapbs.org/iowapress.
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