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Why did it take so long for help to arrive after Iowa storm?
Pamela Elliot was in her second-floor apartment when the sirens went off. She was working from home because of the pandemic and watching her infant grandson. It was just a thunderstorm, so she wasn't worried at first.
But then the walls started shaking. She grabbed 4-month-old Akai'Dyn and ran toward the closet and huddled there in the doorway as the winds blew the walls and ceiling off her unit at the Westdale Court Apartments.
When the Aug. 10 storm was over, neighbors came to rescue her. Two walls of her apartment and the roof - gone.
But that wasn't the worst of it. For three days in the heat, she and her partner, David Frantz, sat outside waiting for help. Paramedics who responded when the walls blew off the apartment told them the Red Cross was on the way. Elliot and Frantz couch surfed, living out of their car, but no one had power. No one had food, everyone they knew already was struggling from the pandemic.
'I always make my own way, I don't want to be a burden,” she said. Asking for help was hard; finding help was even harder.
The Red Cross finally opened a shelter Aug. 14 in Cedar Rapids. Elliott found out about the shelter the next day.
Across Cedar Rapids, Iowans impacted by the storm struggled for days to get help.
Residents of the Commonwealth Senior Apartments, a retirement community, went without power for three days. Ethel Fontenette, one of its residents, organized an effort to grill food spoiling in the fridges and serve it to those who couldn't leave their homes. People had to walk up and down the stairs to get food to their neighbors. 'I never want to see another step again,” Fontenette said.
At the Blairs Ferry Senior Apartments, residents said they went without power for four days. Power remained intermittent and residents were encouraged to bring their cellphones with them in case they got stuck in the elevator.
At the Linwood Apartments, residents still were without power as of six days after the storm.
In the absence of a coordinated, centralized response to the disaster, people in Cedar Rapids have just done it themselves - organizing and mobilizing on Facebook.
We aren't new to disaster. This is the third major natural disaster in 12 years. Each time, residents organized and collaborated to help one another through social media. But the efforts, while herculean and well-intentioned, have blind spots.
Gazette reporter Allison Gowans went to Cedar Terrace Apartments, where residents said they had no contact with city officials beyond those who came to post non-occupancy notices.
'The community has been asking, ‘Where's the help?'” Lemi Tilahun, with the organization Eastern Iowa African Diaspora, told The Gazette.
On Aug. 18, eight days after the storm, President Donald Trump came to Cedar Rapids. He didn't leave The Eastern Iowa Airport. He saw pictures of the damage and approved the public portion of the disaster declaration, which helps cities and counties recoup money for clearing debris, fixing public buildings and utilities.
He later approved the individual assistance portion covering damaged homes and farms - but for Linn County only, not yet at least for the 26 other counties named by the state.
Now, nearly two weeks after the storm, help is mobilizing. But the question remains:
Why did it take so long for Iowa's second largest city to get more help?
‘What do you suggest?'
Ideally, in a disaster, city officials reach out to the County Emergency Agency, whose job it is to coordinate the response. There are a lot of moving parts of any response and the EMA's job is to coordinate all of those and work with the surrounding regions and the state to find resources.
There is a chain of command. It's bureaucracy, yes. But it's an important flow to prevent redundancies and chaos so each entity, from nonprofits to the fire department, can do its part to respond and provide aid.
That's how it should operate.
When I called Linn County EMA Coordinator Steve O'Konek, a full week after the storm, he explained the lag in response was due to the inability to communicate.
'Cellphones were down, internet was down, phone lines were down, that made all of this very hard. Plus, the people we normally reach out to for help, the surrounding counties, were also impacted,” he said.
'Was there a central operation set up? Was there not a plan for when all communications are wiped out?” I asked.
'Well, what would you suggest?” asked O'Konek.
I suggested perhaps meeting in person. Or satellite phones. But also, I pointed out, it was not confidence inducing that he was asking me what I would do.
'Aren't you in charge?” I asked.
He assured me, yes, there were plans, but he didn't clarify what they were. But that despite those plans, communication was a challenge. And emergency crews did do the work, beginning to clear trees and street debris.
'But what about the people who sat on the street waiting for help for days?” I asked.
'Well, I put in a request for help from the Red Cross on Monday after the storm,” said O'Konek. 'But talk to the Red Cross.”
All facilities damaged
When I called Peter Teahen, a spokesman for the American Red Cross in Cedar Rapids, he assured me the organization did the best it could.
The situation he describes was chaotic.
”You have to have a facility that is safe and usable for a shelter,” he said. 'You can't just put people anywhere. All the facilities we normally used were damaged.”
He described trying to call backup shelters, but no one was answering.
'We had no ability to communicate. We couldn't contact people. We didn't know if buildings were safe or if they were ADA-compliant.”
I asked if this work could have been done beforehand, and why there wasn't a plan for such a scenario. He also asked me what I would suggest. And again, I pointed out, he was the expert.
'I just want to know what the plan was,” I said. 'People were sitting outside for days waiting for help. Senior centers went without power.”
'I don't know about that,” said Teahen.
The Red Cross set up shelters in Palo and Marion and worked to coordinate housing for 100 people in hotels. But Cedar Rapids didn't have a shelter until Aug. 14. Teahen was quick to point out that once a shelter was set up in Cedar Rapids, people didn't show up en masse.
But how was the message communicated? Was it in a culturally sensitive way? Multiple languages?
'We told the media,” Teahen said.
I asked him if he had any regrets or concerns about the people still without power or a way to access shelter.
'We did the best we could with the resources provided,” he said. And then our conversation was over. He had to go home. His house just got the power back.
‘We don't need help'
In an interview three days after the storm, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart told KCRG-TV9 that the city didn't need help from the National Guard.
'I don't know that we need help. That's the thing … I ... I just told you, I don't know what other resources the National Guard could do. Could they do traffic control? Could they bring ice? Could they bring water? I don't know that, I'm trying to find that out.”
When I talked to Hart, he said the quote had been misunderstood. What he meant was that he didn't know if Cedar Rapids needed the specific help that the National Guard could supply, such as policing and debris removal.
Hart stressed that he's just a part-time civil servant, who had his own damage to his own property. He couldn't get out of his own driveway.
'We were asking for help,” he told me. He explained how the city had mobilized to remove debris from the streets. By the day after the storm, the state had delivered skid loaders and trucks to address debris. But what about the humanitarian aspect? I asked.
'Ask Greg Smith,” said Hart, referring to the city's fire chief. 'He would know.”
One day after Hart said, 'I don't know that we need help,” the National Guard hit the Cedar Rapids streets.
‘We were all impacted'
Chief Greg Smith is incident commander coordinating the disaster response for the city. During the storm, the fire station received over 400 emergency calls. Ten minutes into the storm, Smith said the city made its first ask of the EMA.
Just like other residents, first-responders also were impacted by the storm. Smith said that when he started calling in helpers, they couldn't get out of their own driveways.
'I was hearing from people. ‘I'd love to come in and work. I can't get out of my driveway. I can't get out of my street.'”
It was like that in all the surrounding areas that would normally send help. 'We were all impacted,” said Smith.
In those first hours during and after the storm, the first priority was answering the emergency calls and clearing the streets to make it safe for residents and emergency vehicles. The police also were doing welfare checks.
Smith said the calls weren't cleared until early Aug. 11. And that same day, Smith said he realized shelters weren't being set up.
The EMA typically is the agency that coordinates that with nonprofits. But the trouble was every building that typically would be used as a shelter was impacted.
By Aug. 11 there was a shelter set up in Marion and by Aug. 14 there was a round-the-clock shelter in Palo.
And police officers were working to drive people to Palo if they wanted to. Many people didn't want to go.
And yes, Smith explained, there is a plan for when all communication systems go down.
The all-hazards plan helps allocate communication resources if all other resources go down, but those backups are primarily for public safety purposes.
There is a gap then, in an emergency like this, between the time when first responders can mobilize resources and when people in the area find out about them.
'We encourage people to stockpile the resources so they can be self-sufficient for 72 hours,” said Smith. 'Obviously, we don't want anyone to go that long without help. But that's the plan individuals need to have.”
Smith said he wants people to know if they call emergency services, they will get help. 'We will hook people to the resources they need. If there are people who need to be connected to a shelter or a place that is distributing food, we will do our work to connect you to the resources you need. We aren't going to leave someone out there.”
‘Tomorrow is too late'
In her previous life, state Sen. Liz Mathis was a journalist. She's covered a lot of storms and surveyed a lot of suffering and damage. This was something else.
'This was a hurricane,” she said, 'a hurricane without much of a warning.”
Her home in Hiawatha was not impacted by the storm. So after the storm struck Aug. 10, she went out to survey the damage and was stunned.
'We've never seen such a complicated utilities issue before,” she said.
By Aug. 11, Gov. Kim Reynolds was in Marion to view storm damage. She issued an emergency declaration for Linn and other counties.
Mathis was among the delegation that met with the governor and said Reynolds was responsive and asked towns to submit preliminary disaster assessments so the state could mobilize resources.
The preliminary disaster assessment is a tool for understanding the scope and breadth of damage and requesting additional resources. It's also a requirement Reynolds could have waived.
State Auditor Rob Sand pointed out on Twitter that Iowa law does provide the governor the ability to bypass that requirement. It was done in 2008 for the Parkersburg tornado.
By Aug. 12, city leaders were still struggling to access resources and without communication tools and technology complete the preliminary disaster assessments.
'There was just a freeze on communications,” said Mathis, referring to the fact that cell towers were down, internet was mostly out, power was almost non-existent. That was when Mathis said she knew the National Guard was needed to be here.
On Aug. 13, legislators had a call with state Homeland Security, where the National Guard explained what it was doing. Mathis said she used her journalism skills to get the phone number of Adjutant General Ben Corell, and begged him to come.
'If you come tomorrow, it will be too late,” she said. He promised he'd be there that night.
Mathis bypassed the bureaucracy and it worked.
After Aug. 13, there was a turning point.
Mathis talked about how Iowa Department of Human Resources Director Kelly Garcia, state Rep. Kristin Running Marquardt, Rep. Tracy Ehlert and City Council member Ashley Vanorny mobilized to work with the Catherine McAuley Center to provide housing for people who were displaced. Mathis told of all the people in town who worked hard to help neighbors, and about caseworkers who drove through nearly impassable roads to check on people who needed electricity for their medicine and medical equipment.
Mathis of course wasn't the only elected leader bypassing bureaucracy to help. On Aug. 8, U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer got married in her backyard. Two days later, that backyard was destroyed by the storm. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Finkenauer knew the scope of the damage and was advocating for aid, delivering generators, food and corralling resources for friends and neighbors.
After the storm, she spoke at an Aug. 13 news conference. 'We need help and we need it now,” she said.
When I called her to ask about how it was possible that people could sit on the curb for four days awaiting help, Mathis said she wants to be positive. 'We need to look through the windshield, not the rearview mirror,” she said.
We still need help
As of Thursday, at least 16,000 customers in Linn County were still without power.
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