As clean up from the derecho continues, journalists for The Gazette and other news outlets covering the disaster have heard one resounding cry, “Where was our help?”
The disaster may prove to be the most destructive storm Iowa has ever seen — it took out internet, power, phone lines and cell towers, which made relief efforts that much more complicated. Additionally, the pandemic added another level of complications to disaster relief.
And yet, while storm response was difficult, it’s critical we hear the underlying meaning: How do we learn and do better? Two weeks after the storm, there have been bright spots to be sure: Neighbors have banded together to remove immediate barriers, utility workers have made herculean efforts to restore power, amazing amounts of debris are being hauled away, partners from many cities across the state helped rehang traffic lights and help us get back to a different semblance of order. Many individuals and organizations have worked tremendously hard to help us rebuild.
Now, as we move past response and into recovery, and as the need for intermediate housing and other necessities become clearer, we’re able to begin to reflect on what parts of the response need improvement and should be part of a comprehensive after-action review.
In an Aug. 25 City Council meeting, Fire Chief Greg Smith clarified relief efforts, but pointed out disappointment that the Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster had not been activated by the county earlier in the disaster. In that same meeting, Mayor Brad Hart apologized for saying the National Guard hadn’t been called in and wasn’t needed, when in fact they were needed and had been requested.
Systemic inequality compounds every level of life in America. And those affected by slow response were people without access to the internet, immigrants and those in poverty.
While Cedar Rapids citizens, people from neighboring towns and nonprofits managed herculean efforts to help out their neighbors, too many people have fallen through the outstretched hands of those relief efforts.
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Regarding emergency shelter and humanitarian needs, local reporting has made it clear that Iowans were left without help, some for days. Groups like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army — usual staples in disaster response — took more than a week before they were ready to provide community meal operations or establish a shelter in the county’s largest city. By that time, a BBQ response team, the World Central Kitchen, and other nonprofits like Mercy Chefs had provided thousands more. What if they had not been there?
Shelter also proved to be a problem, with the Red Cross establishing a countywide shelter in Thomas Parkin Marion in the hours after the storm. Many in need struggled to find a way to get to the shelter, others didn’t even know it existed, or had barriers from wanting to use it. A shelter in Cedar Rapids was established five days after the storm. When humanitarian need was available, that aid wasn’t communicated in a culturally-sensitive or multilingual way for days, leaving Cedar Rapidians literally and figuratively in the dark.
In the aftermath of the storm, officials tasked with emergency response need to look forward and develop better plans for future disasters. Agencies charged with emergency response in the county, city and region should conduct a public, comprehensive review of everything that went wrong. We likely need new communication strategies, clearer organizational lines for efficiency and quick decision-making, more robust training and coordination of all of this on the regional level.
We urge our leaders to focus on a more robust, organized humanitarian relief effort for people in low-income housing, immigrant communities and senior centers. This includes efforts at better cultural sensitivity in disaster response, multilingual communication and coordination with the nonprofits that excel at this work.
Ideally, diaster response is coordinated through the county EMA. But during the derecho, that role was unclear and even now, local leaders seem confused over who was responsible for centralizing the response. Clarification of this role and executing it effectively is necessary in the future.
This is Cedar Rapids’ third major natural disaster in 12 years. And as our climate changes, it will not be our last. We need to be prepared.
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