Guest Columnist

Derecho showed Cedar Rapids' strengths in disaster response - and some weaknesses

Downed trees are seen along 18th Street SW in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Downed trees are seen along 18th Street SW in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

We want to thank the citizens of Cedar Rapids for your continued strength and resilience as we work to recover together from the derecho that left no neighborhood undamaged. We share the frustration many of you have that the historic strength, intensity and scope of the derecho, coupled with minimal warning, exposed weaknesses in parts of the system our community relies on to respond to natural disasters. The city jumped in to fill as many gaps as possible with every resource we have at our disposal. We know from the flood of 2008 that the road to recovery will not move as quickly as we want, but the community has our commitment that we’re doing everything in our power to collaborate with state, federal, nonprofit and business partners to come back stronger.

Like you, most city employees, their families and their neighbors were impacted by the storm, but that didn’t deter their commitment to providing essential services. During the derecho, police officers and firefighters were risking their own lives to rescue victims who had trees fall on their vehicle or were trapped inside their home. Other city departments immediately mobilized to clear streets as quickly as possible to support first responders and utility companies. Our Incident Management Team worked to addressed the immediate needs of life safety, food, shelter and damage assessments.

Timeline of the city government’s response to the Cedar Rapids derecho

With the lack of power, internet and cellphone service, one of the most obvious needs was getting important life safety information to residents. A printed Storm Response Resource flyer was distributed at grocery and home improvement stores. Police officers also distributed them to neighborhoods. Recognizing the diversity of our community, the fliers were translated into multiple languages.

Typically in a disaster, social service agencies such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army provide meals and shelter because these regional and national nonprofits have the expertise and experience to provide humanitarian needs. In this disaster, they were also severely impacted by the derecho’s destruction, limiting their ability to quickly respond. The city worked to support these needs by securing Veterans Memorial Coliseum as an emergency shelter. Neighborhood Resource Centers were quickly organized and staffed to provide essential resources and information. These centers created hubs of resources — ice, food, water and connections with nonprofits who had galvanized to provide a response to the storm’s damage. Residents could pick up supplies, talk with a trained crisis counselor or speak with a representative from Legal Aid to help answer questions on insurance or tenant rights. These sites were also coordinated with other food relief efforts.

Public safety personnel conducted over 400 welfare checks in the first week following the storm to make sure loved ones were connected with families or residents were connected with resources. The city conducted damage assessments of homes and businesses so that no one would be severely injured in an unsafe property. The city played a large role in offering the community’s first charging and cooling stations, which were open to all residents at multiple locations.

Plans were swiftly implemented to pick up garbage in an efficient manner, which thwarted a secondary public health disaster if bags of spoiled food would have been left curbside for an extended period. Measures from previous flood disasters ensured Cedar Rapids had safe drinking water and the wastewater treatment facility remained operational throughout the disaster response and recovery. Thousands of tons of tree debris have been picked up and we will continue to haul debris until the job is completed.

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Meeting our residents’ housing needs was a major concern, so the city surveyed all its registered landlords to determine how many units were available and undamaged following the storm, and helped match displaced tenants with available units. The city is committed to a seamless transition from shelters to long-term housing solutions for those in need.

Much has been accomplished in three weeks, but there is more work to do. We recognize that both residents and businesses suffered significant loss. As a council, we successfully advocated for FEMA Individual Disaster Assistance eligibility for our community. This is just one example of how we will continue to work with state and federal partners, and well as the private sector to help our community not just recover, but become stronger together.

Brad Hart is mayor of Cedar Rapids. City Council members are Marty Hoeger, Patrick Loeffler, Tyler Olson, Scott Olson, Scott Overland, Ann Poe, Dale Todd and Ashley Vanorny.

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