116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Days after the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho, five semi trucks full of ice arrived in Linn County.
“Sometimes in disasters we get resources that just show up,” said Steve O’Konek, the Linn Emergency Management Agency coordinator. “We didn’t make a request for ice. Somebody must have thought we needed ice. We got a call from the state we were getting five semi loads. When those things are en route, they create a strain on our resources.”
More collaboration among communities, better communication with the public and no rogue resource requests are among recommendations in Linn County’s after-action review of the 2020 derecho.
The 25-page review, approved Tuesday night by the Linn County Emergency Management Commission, is one of the first post-derecho reviews to be made public more than a year after the devastating storm, which caused more than $7 billion in damage in Iowa.
The city of Cedar Rapids is expected to release its after-action review soon. The Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s report “still is being worked on” and officials at the state don’t have an expected release date, spokeswoman Lucinda Parker said.
Some of the biggest challenges of the 2020 derecho were known even before the storm was over.
“Delivering reliable information to the whole community at this time in the response effort was crucial,” the report states. “Due to infrastructure outages, TV and radio stations were knocked offline. Broadcast stations were unable to reach their audiences due to the infrastructure loss sustained throughout Linn County.”
Regardless, Linn County communities did not coordinate their messaging, instead issuing news releases, posting on social media and doing news media interviews that sometimes resulted in incomplete or inaccurate information getting to the public.
Among recommendations in the report are using a joint information system with communities talking first before releasing information to the public. The county also wants to buy video equipment to make its own social media posts.
Assessing the damage
When the high winds died down, emergency employees tried to go out in their cars to assess derecho damage, but fallen trees blocked roads. With limited cellphone capabilities, it was hard to get damage reports by phone.
Linn County recommended signing deals in advance with aircraft companies willing to fly agency officials to survey future damage by air.
Shortage of emergency shelters after the derecho was perceived as a shortcoming of emergency managers and nonprofits.
“Many of the buildings that were predesignated as shelter sites within Linn County were not equipped with generators and therefore could not serve as shelters during this disaster,” the report states.
Shelters provided in Marion, Cedar Rapids and Palo never reached their capacity, but that could have been because some displaced residents did not know where to go, the report states.
The American Red Cross, tasked with providing shelter after disasters, conducted an informal review soon after the derecho and determined it should have had more emergency shelters available, even with the risks of coronavirus. The nonprofit said it will continue to activate group shelters right away, then transition displaced people to hotel rooms.
Linn County wants to enhance a 50-bed mobile shelter trailer, encourage more county officials to get Red Cross shelter training and get an updated Red Cross call out list every 12 months.
When O’Konek asked the 20-member commission — which includes every mayor in Linn County, Sheriff Brian Gardner and a member of the Board of Supervisors — last fall to provide him information about how their agencies and communities dealt with the derecho, he said, no one responded.
“We assumed, perhaps incorrectly, communities would do their after-action review either informally or formally,” O’Konek said.
O’Konek sent the completed review to the commission Aug. 11, seeking feedback. He said he got back only some grammar notes from Gardner. When O’Konek asked Tuesday night for approval of the report, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said he wanted more time to review it.
“I did not spend as much time on it until recently,” Hart said.
He said the city’s report, done by Tennessee-based Atchison Consulting Services, might overlap with the county’s report.
“If there are discrepancies between the entity (Atchison) report and ours, the city’s review might be viewed as a little more pertinent because it’s by a third party,” Hart said. “I don’t want the EMC to look bad.”
The commission voted to approve and release the report, with Hart being the only dissenting vote.
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