Staff Columnist

The feds are not very good friends when it comes to disaster relief

Sluggish, lopsided and politicized are the normal characteristics of government disaster responses

Heavy damage from the derecho storm on August 10th is visible on River of Life Church in an aerial photograph in Cedar R
Heavy damage from the derecho storm on August 10th is visible on River of Life Church in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. (Stephen Mally/Freelance)

The biggest Iowa news story of the summer — the Aug. 10 derecho storm that destroyed swaths of Linn County and beyond, in the middle of an infectious disease pandemic — quickly turned into an even bigger story, about the inability of all levels of government to promptly assist people without shelter and basic supplies.

It took days for city and county governments to make contact with all their affected neighborhoods. Local and state officials bickered about the timing and process for requesting disaster assistance. The Trump administration so far has approved only a paltry portion of the state’s federal aid request.

Unfortunately, none of this is surprising. Sluggish, lopsided and politicized are the normal characteristics of government disaster responses, even in a nation and region that has grown accustomed to once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes every few years.

If the government has a role to play, it ought to play it well.

Winds blowing well over 100 miles per hour wrecked Eastern Iowa’s trees, homes and utility infrastructure. Tens of thousands were without electricity, and hundreds had no safe shelter in the aftermath of the derecho.

In particularly hard hit apartment buildings on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side, where many immigrants and refugees live, significant support didn’t start trickling in until a couple days after the storm. The first people residents there saw from the government were not aid workers, but regulators.

“The only engagement with government or officials was people coming to put non-occupancy notices on their doors and leaving with no explanation,” Lemi Tilahun, an organizer with Eastern Iowa African Diaspora, told Gazette reporter Alison Gowans.

Cedar Rapids government officials dismissed conspiracy theories speculating that wealthy neighborhoods were getting quicker service than low-income neighborhoods, but some leaders still acknowledged the local response was inadequate.

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“We have failed the immigrants, the invalids and the old. And we did not respond as quickly and as efficiently as possible. We need to do better for our city,” City Council member Dale Todd told my colleague Lyz Lenz in a recent interview.

Almost two weeks after the storm, the community response has made significant strides. Attention now turns to federal disaster funding.

Gov. Kim Reynolds last week filed a request for nearly $4 billion to fund cleanup and recovery efforts from the storm. President Donald Trump quickly approved a small portion of that sum, just $45 million, but told Iowa officials during a visit to Cedar Rapids last week that he would “take care of” the rest.

Two days later, Trump cleared the way for individual assistance requests for Linn County, but as of Friday afternoon, he had not taken up the rest of Reynolds’ request, which includes more than 20 other counties.

Thank goodness Trump didn’t stay long in storm-ravaged Cedar Rapids

Doomsday preppers don’t seem so crazy now, do they?

To be clear, Trump is uniquely bad at this. He is a befuddled administrator with no interest in proper procedures for making policy or allocating funds. But Trump is not that far off from the norm. The federal government has a long history of mishandling and politicizing disaster relief efforts.

Research shows federal disaster declarations are more common in election years, relief programs are more likely to be targeted at political swing states, and that the system most benefits states with members on relevant congressional committees. Those phenomena have been observed under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

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It all goes back to the New Deal, when President Franklin Roosevelt sent disproportionately generous payments to up-for-grabs western states, and relatively less to southern states where he was already popular.

If Iowa were seen as a swing state in the 2020 election, rather than a Republican-leaning state, or if we had a few more electoral votes, maybe we’d be getting faster access to more federal funds.

Many of the most ardent advocates of limited government will acknowledge the government should respond to major disasters, particularly for the kinds of events that are relatively rare and difficult to plan for. And if the government has a role to play, it ought to play it well.

While the apparent failures in storm response this month in Eastern Iowa come from all levels of government, they are not all the same. Local institutions were slow to the uptake, but they finally are getting things worked out. No doubt, local expertise from floods and tornadoes proved beneficial.

But the federal government — for many decades, but perhaps especially under this administration — has proved itself an unreliable partner. Iowans recovering from this disaster must think toward the next inevitable disaster, and the likelihood we’ll be on our own again.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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