116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When disaster strikes, low-tech solutions can be the best backups.
Ham radio, pagers and even colored balloons have been used successfully to communicate after major storms knocked out power, internet and reliable cellphone service - like the Aug. 10 derecho did in Eastern Iowa.
'We're so used to instantaneous information, but all those things go away when the power goes out,” said Craig Fugate, who oversaw hundreds of storm responses in Florida before serving as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2009 to 2017.
'For the first couple of days, all you know is as far as you can walk and as far as you can see,” said Fugate, now an emergency management consultant.
That was true in Cedar Rapids, where, after the storm's more than 100-mph winds abated, fallen trees blocked streets in every direction, buildings with missing roofs needed to be tarped and cellphones were virtually useless.
It's human nature to point fingers about who should have done what differently after a major storm, but Fugate said the important question now is what we - all of us - will do differently the next time.
Finding ways to communicate
In past storms, the Linn County Emergency Management Agency posted alerts on social media, which people can access on their phones, EMA Coordinator Steve O'Konek said.
But trees that fell Aug. 10 hit fiber lines and hampered cellphone service.
'We've got to figure out a way to be more robust to get information to people when all the systems go down,” he said.
Fugate, an amateur radio operator with the call sign KK4INZ, said counties should have relationships with local ham radio operators and FM broadcast stations because community members can listen on battery-powered radios or on car radios.
When Fugate was a county emergency manager in Florida, he gave a two-way pager to every radio and TV station so he could broadcast messages to them even when the power went out during a hurricane. He later added nursing homes to the list, so staff would get recorded messages about evacuations.
Linn County's public safety radio system worked during and after the derecho for police and fire personnel to communicate with each other, O'Konek said. But he'd like to get city managers and mayors connected to that system through a non-emergency channel - something Fugate also recommended.
Getting the word out about shelters
Linn County's 83-page emergency management plan, which is approved by the EMA Commission that includes mayors of all the county's cities, the sheriff and a representative from the Board of Supervisors, delegates shelter and emergency food supplies to non-governmental organizations.
Although the American Red Cross set up a small overnight shelter in Marion's Thomas Park hours after the derecho, there was little communication to displaced residents - some of whom stayed in tents because they did not know about other options. Other overnight shelters were opened several days later.
Josh Murray, spokesman for the Nebraska-Iowa Red Cross region, said it's too soon for the organization to talk about improvements that could be made for the next emergency.
'Following disaster responses we hold what we call an After Action Review, during which several people involved in the operation meet to take a look back at all aspects of the response, share feedback and address lessons learned,” he said.
Fugate said some people measure the need for shelters based on the number of people staying overnight - but that's not the way these waypoints are used.
'I've dealt with this in parts of Florida,” he said. 'I won't see big numbers at night because people will go to friends' houses. But they will come during the day to get food and information.”
After Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, hit Florida, Louisiana and the Bahamas in 1992, Florida aid workers used different colored helium balloons to signify to the public which services were available at which locations, Fugate said.
'Within a couple days of doing the balloons, everyone knew what the colors meant,” he said.
Which brings about another lesson learned: 'Whatever is working, go with it. Then try to figure out where your holes are,” he said.
Kristin Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of East Central Iowa, which coordinated volunteers for the derecho response, said in the future, the organization would like to make it so volunteers can sign up through social media, not just through a website or phone call. The organization also plans to cross-train more staff in disaster response.
Addressing the need for providing food
The Salvation Army, charged with providing emergency food after a disaster, wasn't able to mobilize within the first 24 hours after the Aug. 10 storm because its own building was damaged and the organization had to rent a generator to keep food cool, said Shalla Ashworth, development and communications director for the Salvation Army in Cedar Rapids.
Ashworth wants the organization to get its own backup generator, which would protect its food stores and allow quicker response.
'We're seeing climate change and I'm seeing more events happening more often,” she said. 'Anything we might do in the future to fulfill our mission is worth it.”
Similarly, many Iowa grocery stores are planning to upgrade to bigger generators so they can power everything from coolers and freezers to lights and cash registers during a prolonged outage, said Michelle Hurd, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, which represents 1,400 retail locations of grocery and convenience stores in Iowa.
Many Cedar Rapids stores were closed or operating at limited capacity for several days after the derecho.
'To run the whole store, installed, it would be about an $100,000 investment for a grocer,” Hurd said.
But some stores had to throw out at least that much value in perishable food items they couldn't keep cool, she said. Those losses are insured, but the experience has made some store owners think a bigger generator could be a good investment, she said.
Buried power lines better, but costly
Aided by an army of utility workers who came from other states, Alliant Energy and other utility companies restored power to tens of thousands of Cedar Rapids residents within a week after the storm.
'That wasn't an in-the-moment decision; utilities know how to help each other,” said Doug Neumann, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. 'They've got waves, almost like a calling tree, that brings in more resources.”
But when 3,400 aboveground power poles have to be replaced following a storm - as was the case in Cedar Rapids - the process of restoring power takes more time than if the power lines were buried underground.
Alliant Energy Director of Engineering John Boston said the company prefers to bury lines and is doing it more often.
'Buried lines improve reliability and reduce costs associated with tree trimming and animal-related outages,” he said. 'They also eliminate any possible injury or outage from a collision with a pole.”
But burying lines is expensive and those costs would translate into a rate increase, which would require approval from the Iowa Utilities Board. Large companies that use a lot of electricity might oppose large hikes, Neumann said.
'For a major industry, that could be a huge cost,” he said. 'But businesses are supportive of a redundant, resilient energy system.”
Some firms learned from 2008 flood
Most of Cedar Rapids' largest companies had little downtime after the storm because they have invested since the 2008 floods in on-site energy generation, redundant systems and cloud information storage, Neumann said.
'We had our major disaster (in 2008) and many, many lessons were learned then,” he said. 'I don't feel like we were starting from square one in terms of being resilient.”
But the city's mid-size companies weren't in the same position.
'What I wondered coming out of this is does the next tier of industry say, 'Wow, maybe we should try to get our capabilities to that level as well,'” Neumann said.
These firms might decide it's cheaper to upgrade systems than to lose time after a disaster.
Of course, 'you can't possibly protect against every scenario” and some upgrades might not make sense in a cost-benefit analysis, he said.
Ongoing need for training and drills
When Fugate was FEMA administrator, he became known for thunderbolt drills - when he would show up at an agency and surprise it with a training scenario.
'I did this at FEMA with one of our radio systems,” he said. 'I wanted to talk with all 10 of my FEMA regions. With no prep, we could only reach five of 10 FEMA regions. A couple of places didn't have antennas hooked up. We said we had the system, but unless it's operational by people who aren't used to using it, doesn't do us any good.”
He recommends a walk, crawl, run strategy where agencies first get out the equipment and train everyone to use it. The next step is scheduled tests, followed by no-notice drills.
Residents should prepare by buying weather radios and batteries and stocking them in an emergency kit that also includes water, non-perishable food, a flashlight, first aid kit and other items. They need to periodically refresh the equipment and drill with it to be ready.
Does Iowa have a ‘Waffle House' index?
Fugate created what became known as the Waffle House index. Because the restaurant chain with locations mostly in the South has a philosophy of opening as fast as possible after a hurricane or other disaster, Fugate could tell how bad a storm was based on whether a Waffle House he passed was open.
The Gazette asked whether a Midwest chain might be used as a similar barometer.
'Unfortunately, no,” he said.
People have tried to convince Fugate the Canadian-based doughnut and fast-food chain Tim Hortons or 7-Eleven convenience stores have a similar get-open strategies, but 'not too many restaurant chains have dedicated staff who will leave headquarters and drive thousands of miles to get a restaurant open.”
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