Guest Columnist

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

From left, finance director Casey Drew, public works director Jen Winter and fire chief and incident commander Greg Smit
From left, finance director Casey Drew, public works director Jen Winter and fire chief and incident commander Greg Smith confer in the Incident Command center at the Central Fire Station in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Editor’s note: At the Cedar Rapids City Council meeting on Tuesday, Fire Chief Greg Smith provided a timeline of the city’s emergency response to the Aug. 10 derecho. This is an abridged version of his report.

Monday, Aug. 10

The derecho storm hit at approximately 12:30 p.m. on Monday, August 10. It was apparent that the impact of the storm was larger than what we thought the storm was going to be. Ten minutes into the storm the dispatch center communications went down, Assistant Fire Chief Andy Olesen drove to dispatch to prioritize incidents and assist in the dispatch of fire department units to the volume of calls we were receiving.

On his way to dispatch, Chief Olesen called me and asked for the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team to be activated as the level of damage quickly showed that the response required was going to be substantial. I immediately called Linn County Emergency Management Director Steve O’Konek to request that the state activate the USAR team per the protocol. That activation was granted by the State.

At 1:20 p.m., Police Captain Jeff Hembera contacted me to discuss establishing the City of Cedar Rapids’ Incident Management Team. We established the team, sent an alert, and the team activated at about 3 p.m. at the City Incident Command Post (ICP) at Central Fire. All incident management positions were staffed and began formulating the incident action plan for an operational period starting at 7 p.m. on August 10.

Contact from the City with Linn County EMA began immediately to discuss the magnitude and impact of the storm. Fire, Police, Public Works, and other City staff were carrying out emergency functions during this time and into the overnight hours. My understanding is that Linn County EMA first requested assistance from outside the area Monday afternoon and evening as a result of these and other contacts throughout the county. The City’s Incident Command Post requested end loaders and portable lighting systems to assist with debris removal from critical roadways. The Red Cross opened a shelter at Thomas Park in Marion on Monday to serve all Linn County residents.

While all telecommunications were severely compromised and unavailable, the Fire Department responded to 547 calls for service, including 6 structural collapses, 39 structure fires, 243 gas leaks, 92 electrical hazards/live wires down, and 6 traumatic injuries. From 12:30 p.m. to midnight, Cedar Rapids police officers responded to 492 calls for service, including 109 welfare checks, 45 traffic accidents, 18 traumatic injuries, and 32 disturbances. To offer perspective, firefighters typically have 37 calls per day and police have 354 calls for service.

All media stations, internet, and cell service were unavailable and unreliable; therefore, it was decided to use the City’s text messaging system and social media to try to get information in the hands of people quickly. Following the initial public safety message released reporting the severe thunderstorm warning for Cedar Rapids, the first public safety release, via social media and formal media releases, was at 1:23 p.m., reporting widespread damage throughout the City and asking people to stay home to allow first responders to respond to calls for service and begin to assess damage. Six additional alerts were communicated that afternoon, including continued Police and Fire calls for service and implementation of the curfew.

Tuesday, Aug. 11


On Tuesday morning, the Cedar Rapids Incident Command Post requested these items verbally from Linn County EMA to source from other jurisdictions:

• Shelter

• Food

• MRE (meals ready-to-eat)

•Reunification Points

•Charging centers for medical equipment

I contacted Linn County EMA to request the National Guard to provide local support. As has been described several times since the event, jurisdictions are not permitted to request a specific resource, such as the National Guard. Rather, the need the community has is specifically presented, and EMA, the state, or the federal government determine what resource they have to best meet that need. As stated earlier, we requested debris removal equipment (end loaders) to ensure public safety passage on streets in the immediate aftermath, and the State assigned the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) for this mission. The IDOT helped remove debris that blocked roads and neighborhoods.

Tuesday continued to be extremely busy for public safety personnel responding to calls for service. Firefighters responded to 180 calls, including 5 structure fires, 14 traumatic injuries and hemorrhages, and 43 gas leaks. Police officers responded to 487 calls for service, including 57 welfare checks, 8 traumatic injury calls, 21 traffic accidents, and 29 disturbances. This was in addition to providing traffic control at major intersections throughout the city.

Wednesday, Aug. 12

On Wednesday, August 12, at the request of the City Manager, the Deputy City Manager and I went to Linn County EMA to discuss having the National Guard activate in Cedar Rapids.

The Cedar Rapids City Council and City Manager again expressed a desire to see the National Guard activate in Cedar Rapids and this message was strongly conveyed to Linn County EMA. Damage assessments were being conducted across the entire city by firefighters and building officials. These damage assessments trigger resources to the community from State and Federal officials. On this day several formal technical requests were made of Linn County EMA, including additional generators and traffic signs.

Humanitarian aid was requested — Cedar Rapids provided Linn County EMA with areas of the City that were requesting food, the need for charging stations for medical equipment, and that shelters located in Cedar Rapids were desperately needed. By this time, the American Red Cross was actively working on setting up shelters in small towns surrounding Cedar Rapids, where damage to buildings had been assessed and in most cases generators were in place or could quickly be deployed.

By Wednesday, we established regularly scheduled daily interviews with WMT and KZIA radio stations to relay more information to citizens. These have continued daily for the next several weeks, also adding KCJJ. Also Wednesday, a news release was sent, information was shared on the City’s website, social media, and text alerts, and City officials conducted one-on-one interviews with The Gazette, KGAN, KCRG and the Associated Press, along with multiple radio stations throughout the day. A printed flyer was developed and distributed at local grocery stores and home improvement stores to attempt to address the widespread loss of technology.

Thursday, Aug. 13

The National Guard was formally deployed and began working with Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities to identify the best use of their assistance. In Cedar Rapids, the most critical mission suitable for the Guard was identified as aiding in the restoration of electrical power across the community (consistent with their critical infrastructure restoration mission allowance). Most of their resources were deployed with Alliant Energy and their partners to clear downed lines that blocked roads and prevented public safety transportation.


Additionally, in an effort to support humanitarian efforts that are traditionally provided by regional and national nonprofits such as Red Cross and The Salvation Army, Cedar Rapids officials went to Linn County EMA on Thursday afternoon to bolster the efforts of Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster (LAP-AID). LAP-AID is a coalition of organizations who seek to increase resilience and minimize the impact of emergencies and disasters. More than 30 organizations and 14 teams contribute to LAP-AID. Each team brings a new perspective and skill to make the collaboration more effective. United Way of East Central Iowa provides leadership to several teams that make up LAP-AID, this service is activated through Linn County Emergency Management Agency during a disaster. Teams represented under the LAP-AID umbrella include disaster volunteer coordination, medical services, and older adult services. We were more than disappointed that LAP-AID had not been activated and working earlier.

Daily news conferences began Thursday, August 13. This was in addition to other communications channels that had been established.

Friday Aug. 14 — Sunday, Aug. 16

Operational priorities for the weekend were life safety, as the Police Department and Fire Department continued to respond to higher than normal call volumes, continued street clearing and debris removal, and traffic signal and sign repair and replacement. Debris removal focused on prioritizing clearing areas for access for power restoration crews.

Because of challenges in finding a suitable shelter, the City secured the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum for the Red Cross, which was opened and operated by them beginning Friday night, August 14. This resource provided a safe place for residents displaced by the storm, and especially vulnerable populations that have medical needs.

Thousands of emergency meals were served by various nonprofits throughout the community over the weekend and continuing into the following several days.

Monday, Aug. 17

The City of Cedar Rapids opened five Neighborhood Resource Centers across the community on Monday morning, August 17, and continue operating today. These centers created hubs of resources — ice, food, water, and connections with all the nonprofits who had galvanized to provide a response to the storm’s damage. The US Cellular Arena was opened to all citizens to charge their phones and use internet services provided there, and switched to become a cooling center as needed. These centers will continue operations through Sunday, August 30 to provide walk-up assistance throughout Cedar Rapids.

Greg Smith is chief of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department.

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