IOWA DERECHO 2020

Half year after derecho, emergency planners yet to assess lessons learned

County review promises look at logistics, communication and mass care

A woman and child walk Aug. 18, 2020, from a Red Cross Disaster Relief vehicle after getting a box of supplies at an apa
A woman and child walk Aug. 18, 2020, from a Red Cross Disaster Relief vehicle after getting a box of supplies at an apartment complex in southwest Cedar Rapids. The nonprofit said lessons it learned after the Iowa derecho led to revised directives for Red Cross responses to hurricanes Laura and Sally as well as wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington state. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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With fallen power lines and cell network interruptions, communication was one of the biggest challenges after the Aug. 10 derecho.

Six months after that unprecedented Iowa disaster, county, city and non-government organizations in Linn County have yet to decide how they will ensure emergency communications get to the public should another such storm again strike in and around the state’s second-largest city.

“Part of our review will be, ‘What communications systems didn’t we tap into?’” said Steve O’Konek, Linn County Emergency Management Agency coordinator. “I don’t have all the answers.”

The agency plans to gather information from its partners — such as cities and nonprofit groups — to put together an after-action review document in the next three to four months, O’Konek said. The review will focus on logistics, operations, communications and mass care of people displaced or needing services.

When the winds of up to 140 mph died down in late afternoon Aug. 10, many Eastern Iowans found themselves trapped in their houses by fallen trees. There was immediate need for shelter and tree removal, with shortages in following days of gas, ice, food and power for medical devices and cellphones.

Past natural disasters — even the life-changing 2008 flood — didn’t affect the entire city of Cedar Rapids, which was in the path of the strongest derecho winds.

Some Cedar Rapidians were critical of the derecho response, saying they didn’t know how to access services like emergency shelters, food or internet. Others complained to Mayor Brad Hart and others about why the Iowa National Guard wasn’t called in sooner. Government and non-government agencies said they did their best in the moment, but officials pledged that in coming weeks and months they would review the response and determine what changes might be needed.

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Experts differ on how long it should take for an after-action review, a process used by government agencies, nonprofits and companies after major projects or disaster responses to improve their plans.

The World Health Organization recommends a review be done within three months to make sure stakeholders still are around and can freshly remember what happened, according to a 2019 report in the journal “Globalization and Health.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took just over five months to complete its after-action report on the agency’s response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

The derecho after-action review has taken longer than expected for some agencies. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has diverted focus and there have been other challenges.

“We have been working to find the best person to facilitate our derecho after-action review,” Cedar Rapids Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler said in an email. “Initially we had hoped to find a consultant or expert in the field who had direct experience with a disaster like ours, or at least with the same magnitude of disaster aspects. We have not been successful at that. However, the Fire Chief has identified a couple of people who have strong general experience in this work, and we are confident that we will be able to secure a contract with them to facilitate this process in the near term.”

Linn County’s 83-page emergency management plan, which is approved by the Emergency Management Authority 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.

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, even with the risks of coronavirus, said Josh Murray, communications director for the Red Cross’s Nebraska-Iowa region.

“During the derecho, we were trying to get everyone in hotels without having a congregate shelter location to avoid any spread of COVID,” he said. “Moving forward, we will activate more congregate shelters early in the response with increased (personal protective equipment), then move people to non-congregate hotel sheltering.”

Murray said the lessons learned in Iowa led to revised directives for Red Cross responses to hurricanes Laura and Sally as well as wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington state. “When a larger number of people need housing, our protocols now call for opening congregate shelters in the initial aftermath of the disaster,” he said.

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The Red Cross’s formal after-action review on the derecho is scheduled for later this month, Murray said.

Shawn DeBaar, captain of the Salvation Army in Cedar Rapids, said the focus for his organization, charged with distributing food after the derecho, is making sure it understands and fulfills those expectations.

“In a disaster, it can truly be an added burden for our government office holders and agencies when they add to the management of a disaster the need to manage or deal with NGOs that are trying to do the best they can, but sometimes communication or strings aren’t being tied together,” DeBaar said.

The Salvation Army will provide whatever information it can to the county, he said, and work on its own challenges, which include repairing a $500,000 in derecho damages to the Salvation Army building at 1000 C. Ave. NW.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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