IOWA DERECHO 2020

'Scary' time inside 911 center after derecho

Calls poured in faster than they could be answered

A Cedar Rapids fire engine passes Aug. 12 by Alliant Energy trucks working on power lines along 18th Street SW in Cedar
A Cedar Rapids fire engine passes Aug. 12 by Alliant Energy trucks working on power lines along 18th Street SW in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — In the hours following the Aug. 10 storm and leading into the next day, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department responded to 547 calls for service including six structural collapses, 39 structure fires, 243 gas leaks, 92 electrical hazards or power lines down and six traumatic injuries.

In that same time frame, the Cedar Rapids Police Department fielded 492 calls for service, including 109 welfare checks, 45 traffic crashes, 18 traumatic injuries and 32 disturbances.

“To offer perspective, firefighters typically have an average of 37 calls per day and police have an average of 354 calls for service per day,” said Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith, who was incident commander of the city’s emergency response center.

Within minutes of the storm hitting that day, the Cedar Rapids Joint Communications Agency was overwhelmed as hundreds of emergency calls poured in.

“I would say stressful is an understatement,” said Cedar Rapids 911 dispatcher Heidi D’Arcy.

D’Arcy and four other dispatchers were on duty when the storm hit. Within seconds, she said, calls started coming in — a lot of them serious.

“It was scary. I think everybody was a little scared because you’ve never been through anything like this before,” she said. “I think, at one point, when I looked at my call screen, we had about 45 pending 911 calls that we couldn’t answer. They were just continuously coming in and we just didn’t have the manpower to answer that many 911 problems at a time. So we continuously had about 30 to 40 calls that were pending.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Andy Olesen, assistant Cedar Rapids fire chief, said it was the busiest period anyone remembers at the fire department.

“What was crazy about this storm was we had hundreds of calls that were just waiting for somebody to free up from another call,” Olesen said. “That sort of thing just doesn’t happen — it doesn’t happen here — because on a typical day, we have enough units to handle what comes our way. But what was incredible about this storm was not only the number of calls we were getting, but also the complex and serious nature of the calls that were coming in.”

The overburdened call boards reflected the pandemonium that was occurring outside the dispatch center, said Cedar Rapids Officer Tyler Richardson.

A Cedar Rapids officer of 10 years, Richardson said he was patrolling near the Hy-Vee on First Avenue East near Wellington Heights when the storm hit.

Within minutes of the wind picking up, Richardson said trees started coming down in the area.

“I saw one come down on some power lines on Second Avenue SE and my initial response was to turn my lights on to block the road. But then the storm just kept getting worse and worse,” he said. And with so many trees in the neighborhood, “I was like, ‘Man I’ve got to get out of here.’ Who’s to say if one of these trees didn’t come down on me, then I wouldn’t be of any use when the storm clears.’”

Richardson said he started making his way toward the Brucemore historic estate when he saw a car trapped under a fallen tree. A woman was inside, he said.

“You know, I am trying to get myself to a safe place, away from all these trees, and here is someone who needs my help,” he said.

After helping the woman out of the car and into his squad car, Richardson said he drove back down First Avenue to the Hy-Vee and they both headed inside to wait out the storm.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“After the storm cleared, it was just crazy,” he said. “We had all these emergency calls and no way to get to them. There were so many downed trees and all of the roads were blocked that I eventually started driving through yards — you know wherever I could to get through and get to these calls.”

“We had crews literally cutting their way to the fire,” Olesen said. “You know, the conditions under which they were trying to respond to these emergencies were just incredibly difficult. There were so many downed trees and power lines, we ended up with popped tires and damaged trucks, the conditions were just exceptionally difficult. And the scale of the damage caused by the storm, I mean it was just unbelievable.”

And the calls the calls just kept coming.

Between 12:30 p.m. Aug. 10 and 5 p.m. Aug. 26, the fire department responded to more than 2,000 calls for service and police fielded more than 4,100 calls. Additionally, emergency dispatchers fielded more than 14,100 non-emergency calls.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.