During President Donald Trump’s swift visit to Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, the president was praised often for his quick action in approving Iowa’s request for a major federal disaster declaration. Trump didn’t stay long, and didn’t survey damage, but he did act fast on the state’s request, submitted Sunday and approved on Monday.
But there was a catch. Trump crowed that he had approved it in “FULL,” but it turns out he only approved a fraction of Iowa’s $4 billion aid package. Aid for individuals and homeowners has yet to be approved, and it is desperately needed.
And the truth is Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration could have sought federal help days sooner. The delay left Cedar Rapids area residents without power and necessities, wondering when help would arrive.
Reynolds has argued the lag involved officials conducting a Preliminary Damage Assessment, or PDA, that provides a picture to federal officials of the severity of a disaster and potential needs. It took several days to complete the PDA, so Reynolds did not request a declaration until Sunday.
But a provision in the same federal rules requiring PDAs also allows that requirement to be waived “for those incidents of unusual severity and magnitude that do not require field damage assessments to determine the need for supplemental federal assistance under the act.” In those cases, the PDA can be completed later but federal help can start rolling in sooner.
State Auditor Rob Sand highlighted this provision this week, pointing to its use when an EF5 tornado hit Parkersburg in 2008. So record time could have also meant record time in help actually reaching affected Iowans. It’s clear the damage inflicted by last week’s derecho was an incident of unusual severity. The day after the storm the governor called it the worst in Iowa history.
So the state could have sought a waiver immediately, in consultation with regional federal emergency managers. The state didn’t need to receive a request from local officials battling communication issues in the first hours after the storm.
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It’s one of the many frustrating, maddening breakdowns in disaster response, leaving tens of thousands of Iowans to face the aftermath amid uncertainty about when help would come. It came from neighbors and local groups, but a larger governmental response lagged behind.
It shouldn’t have happened. And it can’t happen again in the future.
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