116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — When the derecho’s high-speed winds pummeled Cedar Rapids last summer as the COVID-19 pandemic posed a public health threat, the city faced a reality that would typically seem “unrealistic” with communication hampered amid widespread power and cell service outages and debris from fallen trees blocking nearly every street, according to a report unveiled Friday.
Among an independent firm’s recommendations in the city of Cedar Rapids’ after-action review of the 2020 derecho, released just over a year after the storm, were that the city increase awareness of the resource request process, enhance backup communications methods and institutionalize processes for coordinating services such as shelter and feeding operations with external partners.
The city contracted with Atchison Consulting Service, an independent firm specializing in emergency management, for $25,000 to conduct the 22-page review of its response to the unprecedented disaster — the costliest thunderstorm in U.S. history, which resulted in an estimated $11 billion in damage across the Midwest.
Cathleen Atchison, the consultant, said over 80 people from all city departments involved in the response, City Council members, volunteer organizations and other partnering agencies were interviewed as part of the review.
It is the second such review to be released this week in addition to Linn County’s after-action review. The Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s report still is in the works.
Widespread power and cell service outages after the derecho severely disrupted communications and revealed a need for the city to prepare alternative communication methods, including paper templates and pre-scripted messages, to rely on in the aftermath of a disaster, the firm found.
One instance of when the communication challenges compounded stress for staff and the public, according to the consultant, was the city’s decision to delay press conferences while power remained out, which prevented information from being shared in video form.
“Inadvertently this decision led to a negative tone from some media outlets which compounded the already stressful environment,” the report stated. “This example highlights the opportunity to formalize and socialize communication processes that are atypical compared to current methods that are rapid and quickly accessible.”
The report did note that city staff creativity and long-standing partnerships and relationships helped provide solution alternatives to keep communication flowing in some form, such as using donated paper to create print flyers containing disaster-related information.
The firm recommended the city identify processes to better communicate with the public, particularly displaced homeowners and vulnerable populations such as the immigrant and refugee community.
A public-facing situational report detailing disaster response actions and accomplishments for each operational period also could improve communication to external partners, the report advised. This would help paint an overall operating picture and inform people of actions taken, resources requested and scheduled activities that will affect the community.
Mass care services
Challenges while facing those communications barriers included “delayed knowledge of external partners that weren’t available to support response efforts that have been depended upon in past disasters,” the report stated, including mass care services needed to provide shelter and food.
But city staff “became proactive and began the coordination process” when the Linn County Emergency Management Agency was initially unable to coordinate these services, the firm found.
The Linn County report similarly identified shortage of emergency shelters after the storm as a shortcoming of emergency managers and nonprofits.
The American Red Cross, which provides shelter after disasters, determined it should have had more emergency shelters, despite the risks of coronavirus transmission, in an informal review it conducted after the derecho.
Throughout the year, the city’s third-party report recommended, Cedar Rapids should continue to foster relationships with these providers to understand resources available, changes in the organizations’ capabilities to provide these resources and any limitations they face.
The report advised training additional employees who might coordinate services, as well as establishing “trigger” mechanisms to know when the disaster exceeds a certain level and needs have exceeded the city’s ability to support a certain function.
Frustration quickly mounted among residents as power remained out for days, and often weeks, after the storm.
A four-page improvement plan, prepared by the consultant, noted that “some perceptions from the ‘whole community’ included a lack of confidence that Cedar Rapids was responding appropriately to the situation.”
To address that, the firm recommended further educating the community about the resource request process and coordination that involves local service providers as well as county and state emergency management agencies.
People should understand what capabilities other partners can provide, as well as what the Guard will and will not provide, according to the report. Additionally, it states that people should know how the process works, how decisions are made outside of control of local incident command, who makes the official request and who assigns resources.
That recommendation is likely intended to address the impact of KCRG-TV reports that Mayor Brad Hart said “we really don’t need” the National Guard. As power outages lingered, and some residents struggled to stay fed and those displaced scrambled to find new shelter, some called for a prompt National Guard deployment as has happened in past disasters.
But Hart has said he was referring to the resource request process and intended to communicate that resources other than the Guard, such as the Iowa Department of Transportation, could be better equipped to meet the city’s needs at the time. When around 100 Guard engineers came, they helped restore power.
Ultimately, the derecho highlighted a need to revise Continuity of Operations plans and procedures to enhance coordination and ensure all staff and elected officials know their roles and responsibilities in a disaster, the report states. Including backup alternatives in this plan for locations, resources and personnel to fill specific roles and staff the Incident Command Center around the clock also would help in case primary staff and resources are inaccessible.
Fire Chief Greg Smith, the incident commander, said the city implemented an Incident Management Team in 2012 after the 2008 flood to get staff across city departments working on a disaster in some capacity, which inherently means people are stepping outside of their traditional roles into more ad-hoc positions to accomplish a given task.
"We had a lot of people step up and say, ‘I don't know how to do it, but I'll do my best,’ and so now I think some of that confusion, coming back with my interpretation of it, is that how do we institutionalize that and make sure that everybody's on the same page?” Smith said.
Such planning, coupled with deliberate training, provides a foundation that will help everyone be prepared for a disaster, regardless of its scope and complexity, Atchison said.
“The more that that plan is trained on and integrated, the better we can serve the communities that are impacted,” Atchison said.
One recommendation included developing or assigning a city emergency management officer to serve as a liaison at the County Emergency Operations Centers during large-scale disaster response.
Similarly, the county report advised creation of a Linn County Incident Management Team with members from each municipality who can respond to the center.
Continuing to train not only staff, but elected officials as well was recommended in the report.
Smith said council members receive two hours of training annually through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program for elected officials, but that “certainly is not enough to get somebody well-versed on roles and responsibilities with that,” such as understanding finance spending limits, signing disaster proclamations and setting the overarching policy direction, then leaving the response duties to public safety and other city personnel.
But there was success in many areas, the report stated, “employees that participate in disaster preparedness training and exercises each year relied on core competencies that have been built over the years. There were countless actions of dedicated emergency responders, city employees and citizens helping citizens, who worked selflessly during the incident to help their fellow Iowans.”
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