CEDAR RAPIDS — As a member of the Iowa National Guard, Joni Ernst was deployed to Cedar Rapids during the 2008 flood.
“This is very different,” U.S. Sen. Ernst said Friday after joining Gov. Kim Reynolds in surveying damage from what the governor described a “40-mile-wide tornado.”
The derecho whipped Monday across Iowa, leaving behind a tangled mess of downed trees and power lines, flattened crops and Iowans — already coping with the coronavirus pandemic — without a roof over their heads in some cases.
Compared with the 2008 flood that covered roughly 10 square miles of the state’s second-largest city, “obviously, it is much more widespread,” Ernst said about the derecho damage.
“There is no part of the city that has not been touched by this.”
Iowans have endured the “unimaginable” over the last five months as they’ve coped with “a worldwide pandemic that continues to change almost every aspect of how we live, work and interact with each other,” Reynolds said. “On Monday, a massive weather event swept across the state, like nothing we’ve ever seen in recent history. Most of us have not even heard of a derecho before that, but now we know it all too well.”
With wind gusts up to 140 mph, the storm covered 7,770 miles over 14 hours bringing “devastation to communities large and small, dealt a major blow to electrical and communication infrastructure and wiped out millions of acres of cropland in addition to bins and structures,” Reynolds said.
Cedar Rapids and Linn County are not alone in the recovery effort.
Reynolds expects to submit the state’s request for a federal major disaster declaration Monday after completing mandatory damage assessments. She anticipates approval “within the day,” adding that President Donald Trump promised to act swiftly.
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A presidential declaration of a major disaster makes a broad array of resources available to the state and localities. They are declared when a disaster exceeds the capabilities of the state and local governments to return communities to as close as possible to their pre-disaster state.
Alliant Energy and ITC Midwest, which owns and operates high-voltage transmission lines in Iowa, have committed to restoring power in Cedar Rapids no later than Tuesday, Reynolds said, though Alliant said in a notification to customers only that “a significant number” of them will have access to power by then.
MidAmerican Energy expects to complete power restoration this weekend. As it completes its work, Reynolds said MidAmerican crews will join Alliant’s efforts.
“When we talked to them (Thursday), they said they were going back to the drawing board and going to work collectively to do everything within their power to get Iowa’s power back up,” Reynolds said. “It may be temporary, but it will allow (Iowans) to get power back. That’s the No. 1 priority. That and communications.”
Reynolds also has been in touch with governors of nearby states to round up generators. Oklahoma, she said, is sending two that can power substations.
Utility crews and public works will get help from the Iowa National Guard, which will be assisting with tree removal on public property. Adjutant Gen. Ben Corell said 100 Guard engineers were in town Friday morning. He promised more as needed.
In response to questions about why she did not activate the Guard sooner, Reynolds said a request for aid from local officials did not come until Thursday night.
Some residents, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer and a labor leader representing local food processing workers criticized the GOP governor for not acting sooner.
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Reynolds’ response “is failing our members in Iowa,” said Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “It is outrageous that it took Gov. Reynolds nearly a week to call in the National Guard when we know it will take weeks and months to recover.”
Corell said it was Thursday afternoon when “we started receiving inquiries from Linn County about obtaining support from the Iowa National Guard.”
“We’ve come. We’re ready to get to work,” he said Friday.
In addition to the engineers, the Iowa National Guard deployed its Civil Support Team, which brought with them communications, search-and-rescue and medical capabilities.
On her tour, Ernst stopped to talk to Vince Nelson, who was sitting on the stoop of his southeast side home. He’s been without power since Monday and was told Friday by Alliant it could be another five days before his power would be restored. He had been cooking family meals on his grill, “but I ran out of food this morning.”
After Ernst and Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler provided him with information on where to find food and a place to charge his medical device, Nelson allowed that “it will pass. We’ll overcome this eventually. It just takes time.”
After her tour, the GOP senator went to Veterans Memorial Stadium to help with a food distribution organized by HACAP and Hy-Vee and its suppliers.
One idea being explored is the possibility of using Housing and Urban Development funds in the federal coronavirus relief packages for food relief, Ernst and Reynolds said.
“So if we’re able to streamline that and use that to purchase additional food for these types of distribution, that is something that we’re actually looking at right now,” Ernst said.
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