IOWA DERECHO 2020

Cedar Rapids mayor takes heat in emails following derecho

Mayor Brad Hart acknowledges misstep but presses for more aid

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks Aug. 14 at a news conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Central Fire Station in C
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks Aug. 14 at a news conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Central Fire Station in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Even without power or internet, dozens of frustrated Cedar Rapids residents found ways to email Mayor Brad Hart in the days after the Aug. 10 derecho to complain about his response.

“Why has the Guard not been called in?”

“Are you on the phone to Washington every hour asking our state representatives to send help? YOU SHOULD BE!”

“What is the matter with you?”

Hart admits his saying in an Aug. 13 KCRG-TV9 interview that city staff didn’t think Cedar Rapids needed help from the National Guard “wasn’t really accurate” and says he’s a “slow learner” when it comes to speaking carefully.

But the lawyer who’s three years into his first term in public office says he’s tried every day to work for the city’s recovery from the storm by doing things like talking with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd about destruction in Cedar Rapids, pressing President Donald Trump to approve individual assistance for storm victims and responding to many angry constituent emails — although not always without irritation himself.

The Gazette reviewed hundreds of emails to and from Hart, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Fire Chief Greg Smith from the week after the Aug. 10 derecho, in which winds of up to 140 mph whipped the city for 45 minutes, to see how city leaders stood up in the eye of the storm.

Natural disaster response can make or break politicians.

Just ask former President George W. Bush, who took the lion’s share of the blame for shortcomings in the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

“If it comes on you and you’re not prepared, things can go south on you very badly,” Hagle said. “President Bush got a lot of the blame for it, but it was really the local folks who weren’t prepared.”

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Research shows people who are engaged in local politics are more likely to rebuke local, county or state officials for problems after a natural disaster, said Megan Goldberg, an assistant professor of American politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

People who are less engaged in local politics blame the president.

“After New Orleans, Bush had really low opinion ratings, but the mayor of New Orleans won another term,” Goldberg said. “There are obviously things like partisanship that comes into it, but the more you know about local politics the more you are to attribute blame to your local government.”

Emails shed light on the frustrations

One of the people who emailed Hart to ask about the National Guard was Jessica Shatto, 38, of Cedar Rapids.

“Are they (Guard) going to be called to be deployed to help with the cleanup effort today?” she wrote at 1:40 p.m. Aug. 13. Later that day, the city confirmed more than 100 Guard members would come to the area to help with tree debris removal, but Shatto said that should have happened sooner.

“I still see debris out on our streets and it’s not safe when I’m driving,” she told The Gazette. “If they would have contacted the Guard and got more people to help, it wouldn’t have taken a month.”

Hart didn’t get back to Shatto by phone or email, she said.

The mayor did reply — with some heat — to Vernon Squires, a Cedar Rapids lawyer who said “we can do better” in an Aug. 14 email about trees and power lines on Cottage Grove Avenue still being down five days after the storm.

“The city is not responsible for the Alliant poles and lines,” Hart replied Aug. 15. “They have 1000 people here clearing lines and poles. Do you really think we are not doing everything we can to help this city?”

In other responses, Hart was more patient. When someone from out of town emailed to ask him to contact the governor, federal agencies and nonprofits to help, Hart replied: “We’ve done that and mobilized our full team of emergency response. Terrible situation but we’ll recover again because we care about each other.”

Hart explains remark about national guard

Hart’s own home sustained damage in the derecho. A tree tore through his ceiling and hit his wife as she was running through their bedroom to get away from the crashing limbs, he told The Gazette.

Contrary to a rumor on social media, Hart did not leave Cedar Rapids during the storm aftermath, he said last week, and he was regularly seen by the media at the city’s incident command center at a fire station.

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“Absolutely not true,” he said of the rumor. “I was at the fire station every damn day. My house is significantly damaged. I suffered through those same issues, but I never left town.”

City Council member Patrick Loeffler said he initially was “shocked” to hear Hart say in the television interview that City Manager Jeff Pomeranz didn’t think the city needed the National Guard.

“There is rumors going around on social media that we have refused the National Guard help. I would like clarification myself,” he wrote in an Aug. 14 email to Hart, Pomeranz and other council members after council member Martin Hoeger raised some questions through email the day before.

Pomeranz wrote to the group at 11:03 p.m. Aug. 13. “I was surprised too,” he said. “There have been many discussions but those were not my words at all.”

Hart responded Aug. 14 saying he was misquoted and “NEVER said we refused Nat’l Guard help.”

He later said he had been speaking strictly about tree debris removal, which was already well underway with city crews, Iowa Department of Transportation teams and private contractors.

The portion of the KCRG-TV interview posted online starts midway, so the listener doesn’t know what Hart and the interviewer were talking about before the National Guard comment came up.

But in the interview, Hart did say, “I don’t know that we need help.”

Hart apologized for the comment during the Aug. 25 City Council meeting, saying, in fact, Pomeranz did request the National Guard.

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Hart said Wednesday his statement to KCRG-TV was “probably not a great assessment. The debris was even worse than anyone had anticipated.”

Loeffler told The Gazette last week that Hart’s explanation makes sense and that he believed the mayor and other council members were doing all they could in the aftermath.

“I’m very proud of the way the city and Brad responded after that,” he said.

Guard request timeline

Daily activity logs maintained by Chief Smith in the aftermath of the storm — and made public through The Gazette’s open records request — don’t mention the National Guard until Aug. 14, the day 100 engineers began work here.

But Smith told The Gazette on Friday the Guard was part of city officials’ discussions at various points that week.

As early as Aug. 11, the day after the storm, Smith verbally asked Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek about requesting the National Guard, he said.

The Guard also was a discussion point at a meeting with city leaders Aug. 13, hours before news broke that 100 engineers were on their way.

Cities can identify their needs and relay those to the county emergency management agency, which deploys resources to meet those needs or works with other entities to fulfill a request, Smith said. But municipalities cannot specifically request a resource like the National Guard, he said.

The National Guard blocked streets for Alliant Energy crews to work, helping city Public Works crews focus on clearing city streets of tree debris. The Guard engineers’ trucks are smaller than the city and Iowa Department of Transportation trucks, so Smith said their power restoration mission was a “perfect” fit for Cedar Rapids’ needs.

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“That’s where the two kind of became married of what they can do and what we needed — that was the marriage that we needed at that point,” Smith said.

Hart presses Trump for more help

When Trump touched down briefly Aug. 18 in Cedar Rapids to hear briefings about the storm from local officials, many of those officials spent much of their time thanking the president for approving on Aug. 17 about $45 million in public assistance, including money for debris removal and repair to government buildings and utilities.

But at that event, Hart told Trump that Cedar Rapidians needed more.

“One of the things that’s in the disaster declaration is the individual assistance, because so many people may have homeowners insurance but there’s still a premium,” Hart said. He added that insurance doesn’t cover spoiled food or removing downed trees from properties.

“Adding the individual assistance component to the disaster declaration would really help so many people get those trees out of their yard and not have such a financial burden,” Hart told the president.

He also handed Trump a letter that talked about how state disaster assistance grants were available only to help low-income residents, but that federal disaster funds could help more of the tens of thousands of residents affected by the derecho.

Hart said he was glad to make the pointed request and even more glad when Trump approved it Aug. 20.

“That was something that was really important for our community and will continue to be important,” he said last week. “I’m happy to have the opportunity to ask the president personally for that.”

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

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