IOWA DERECHO 2020

National Guard help coming to Cedar Rapids after devastating storm

City residents had ramped up calls for extra support to recover from Monday's derecho

CEDAR RAPIDS — Four days after a storm as strong as a hurricane walloped Cedar Rapids — and as frustrated residents grew impatient over the pace of recovery efforts — a wave of 100 National Guard engineers is arriving to help.

The confirmation from the governor’s office came after several city officials held a news conference Thursday afternoon, saying they weren’t sure of the timeline for help to arrive but asserted Cedar Rapids crews responding to the devastation had the wherewithal to meet residents’ needs for now.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz told The Gazette he welcomed the news that more help was on the way.

“We’re thankful that the National Guard is here and we believe that they’ll be able to give us significant assistance, and we appreciate everybody’s support getting the National Guard here,” Pomeranz said.

State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said Maj. Gen. Ben Correll confirmed to her that 100 engineers were to arrive Thursday and fan out across the area Friday to assess damage.

A spokesman for the governor’s office also confirmed the Guard’s arrival to The Gazette.

The state also could provide generators to shelters and smaller businesses that provide essential services, Mathis said.

“People are very happy,” Mathis said. “For the last two days, a lot of people have been saying, ‘Where is the National Guard? Where is our help?’”

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The city doesn’t have the authority to activate the Guard itself. County officials and eventually Gov. Kim Reynolds decide how to best meet the needs for help outlined by the city, Pomeranz said earlier Thursday.

In Cedar Rapids’ case, requests for service go through Linn County Emergency Management, and that agency asks for support from the governor.

Eventually, Mathis said, damage assessment information is sent to the governor’s office. That is passed to the White House to seek a presidential disaster declaration, which she said would trigger the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get involved.

Reynolds is scheduled to meet Friday with Cedar Rapids officials and hold a noon news conference, though the location of that was not yet announced. Pomeranz said officials plan to press her to expedite requests for that federal support.

“That’s critical. We need her assistance there, but we feel good about that,” Pomeranz said. “We need more help and we know that, and we’re open to that.”

Mayor Brad Hart said Cedar Rapids officials and the governor will communicate about work being done by the city and by the National Guard to coordinate what both are doing.

We’ll thank the governor for at least beginning to meet our requests,” Hart said.

He said his conversation with Reynolds about the Guard arriving came only after Thursday afternoon’s news conference, where questions about the Guard were raised. Hart said it “would’ve been great” if confirmation had come before the livestreamed news conference, but city crews have been working hard regardless.

“It’s not like we hadn’t asked,” Hart said. “We’ve made an ask for services. … We just didn’t know it’d come from the National Guard.”

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The Guard will work directly with Linn County Emergency Management Director Steve O’Konek, Pomeranz said.

O’Konek said at the news conference Thursday that officials had to determine whether National Guard assistance was the best way to meet residents’ needs.

“They are very good at what they do, but we will work to get the best resource and accomplish that task in the best possible way,” he said.

O’Konek said he believes this is an event that calls for FEMA support, too, but it’s taken time with communication delays to identify the need and provide resources.

“We’ve fallen down in a couple of areas and we’ll try to pick that back up, but we’re doing the best we can,” O’Konek said.

The city’s focus has been on removing tree debris and clearing roads, which city Public Works Director Jen Winter said are now largely passable. This will help pave the way to fully restore electricity in the coming week.

Winter said the city used its emergency purchasing powers to bring in eight to 10 contractors with an unspecified staff size to help, and there also are 150 public works staff and another 35 to 40 from the Iowa Department of Transportation to help with cleanup.

Traffic also remains disrupted and people should treat intersections without power as four-way stops, she said.

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Of the city’s 190 intersections with traffic signals, Cedar Rapids crews have restored power to 37 and about another 40 are on generator power.

While the historic 2008 flood devastated the community, Pomeranz said the disaster directly impacted only 14 square miles of Cedar Rapids. The derecho’s destructive winds affected all 75 square miles of the city and disrupted everyone’s lives, he said.

“When I think about our beautiful city of Cedar Rapids and then Monday, over the last couple of days have taken the time to drive around, it’s heartbreaking to see the damage that this storm has caused our community,” Pomeranz said. “ … Seeing buildings knocked down, seeing roofs blown off is tough for all of us as Cedar Rapidians, but also seeing the anguish it has caused individuals.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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