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Derecho's sudden explosion made it difficult for Cedar Rapids to respond

'There just was not the time ahead of time to gather' recovery resources, City Council member says

Traffic attempts to move past downed power lines and trees  along Bowling Street following a derecho Aug. 10 in Cedar Ra
Traffic attempts to move past downed power lines and trees along Bowling Street following a derecho Aug. 10 in Cedar Rapids. The storm came with little warning.(Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

JOHNSTON — The speed with which a devastating storm turned severe and tore through Iowa nearly two weeks ago, causing destruction in Linn County especially, made it difficult for local government to more rapidly respond to residents’ needs once the storm passed, a local leader said Friday.

Tyler Olson, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council, said during recording of this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS that local government did not have enough warning time to prepare for the storm’s impact.

The derecho — so classified because of its high-velocity, straight-line winds — caused an estimated $4 billion in damage statewide, according to the state’s federal disaster assistance request. Wind speeds exceeded 100 mph across Iowa as the storm passed through the state from nearly river to river.

Cedar Rapids residents have expressed frustration with emergency response efforts in the wake of the Aug. 10 storm.

“I think part of the issue is the warning that there just was not the time ahead of time to gather those resources,” Olson said.

The National Weather Service issued its first thunderstorm warning for Linn and other Eastern Iowa counties at 11:48 a.m., and the storm hit the Cedar Rapids metro area at 12:30 p.m., according to a timeline compiled by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

“Immediately after the storm the city of Cedar Rapids started gathering its incident command leaders, realized very quickly that this was a storm and damage that we were not going to be able to handle on our own, and so our first call is always to the regional emergency management association. For us, it’s the Linn County Emergency Management Association,” Olson said.

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“We began that contact on Monday afternoon and continued on Tuesday morning as we assessed the damage asking for resources. We knew we were going to need help with debris removal, we knew we were going to need help with shelter, we knew we were going to need help distributing food and water. So we started asking very quickly for those resources."

TIMELINE:A timeline of the derecho response in Iowa

Olson said he understood why Cedar Rapids residents may be upset, especially if they are going on two weeks without power.

“But the city put every single piece of equipment, every single member of our team on recovery immediately, and so we’ve been working through that process,” Olson said. “But when you don’t have power for going on two weeks, there’s going to be frustration, and we understand that, and we’re frustrated that we can’t get that back sooner.”

An ‘unexpected, explosive event’

Justin Glisan, the state’s climatologist, expressed a sympathetic view to local governments attempting to manage the storm’s aftermath.

“This was an unexpected, explosive event and getting those resources available when you’re not exactly sure when a derecho is going to happen, given the extreme nature of it, it’s a very difficult thing,” Glisan said.

Glisan said forecasters were able to provide roughly 45 minutes to an hour of warning. He said the storm, which was first observed that morning in South Dakota, unexpectedly and quickly became severe when it combined with what Glisan described as “an explosively unstable atmosphere,” just east of Carroll, Iowa.

“The interesting thing that morning is if you look at the storm prediction center’s convective outlooks that give us an idea of where severe weather could occur, there was a slight risk from Kansas City to St. Louis, nothing across the state of Iowa,” Glisan said. “So as this line propagated across the border, it hit warm, moist air and it just exploded. And trying to get all of those atmospheric parameters together, we have a derecho parameter, it wasn’t showing up until that line really started intensifying near Carroll.”

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Glisan said derechos are not uncommon — Iowa experienced derechos in 2011 and 2013 — but that this one was far more severe.

“This one will go down as a significant weather day in Iowa history,” Glisan said.

To watch the show online, go toiowapbs.org/iowapress/story/37208/derecho-recovery.

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