Cedar Rapids city manager acknowledges gaps in derecho response

Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 8:28 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Almost six hours after the derecho hit Cedar Rapids on August 10, the White House contacted Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart. The mayor didn’t respond to the email, rather it was forwarded to Assistant City Manager Angie Charipar.

The email from William Crozer, who is a special assistant to the president, is buried alongside around 100 emails mostly complaining about the mayor who had said in an interview with KCRG-TV9, “we really don’t need the National Guard in here".

But Hart, just like the rest of the Cedar Rapids city council, had very little control over calling the National Guard. Rather, after TV9′s I9 investigative unit reviewed hundreds of emails and documents, city staff ran the storm response rather than the city’s elected officials.

The CEO of the City

Jeff Pomeranz, the City Manager of Cedar Rapids, described his role as a CEO of a private company where the city council and mayor act as a board of directors.

“My role is very similar to a private corporation where I’m managing - in this case - the government of a day to day basis,” Pomeranz said. "But I work with and support the city council members who are elected, who report to the citizens of Cedar Rapids, who actually make the policy, give us that direction and guidance. "

Pomeranz said his influence is mostly internal but recognizes he serves under the city council. The council can listen to recommendations from the city manager’s office or choose its' own policy.

“I am running the show,” Pomeranz said. “But always recognizing the importance of those who are the policymakers of the city.”

Pomeranz said his job is to make sure the city has resources to manage and to appoint an incident commander in case of a disaster. The incident commander coordinates the city’s disaster response.

The incident commander for Cedar Rapids is Fire Chief Greg Smtih. Pomeranz said in a disaster the incident commander reports to the city manager, who then reports their progress to the Cedar Rapids city council.

Emails show the city council received communications often from city officials, but the information it received is approved from the city manager’s office.

Pomeranz said under the city’s current government system it’s more efficient for him to gather and approve a document rather than listen to 15 different department heads. He said those communications are common and staff members have the ability to report to the council at their meetings.

Emails obtained by TV9 show the city’s communication staff gave the mayor and other city officials specific talking points about the storm response.

Pomeranz said the council is not just symbolic in the city’s government.

“The mayor and council are representative, representatives of the community of the voters,” Pomeranz said. “So what they say is highly, highly critical to how we operate as a city government.”

The city’s response

The city, like many other individuals and agencies, we’re not prepared for the derecho when it hit Cedar Rapids. However, it did have a plan and worked around the clock to help people in their community.

The city’s response started with creating an incident command center at the Central Fire Station. It puts city leaders from across departments in one room, which helped with communication. City staff said, normally, it is created days in advance of a disaster like flooding, but that wasn’t an option because of the naturally short lead time of something like a derecho.

Pomeranz said he understands there were still shortcomings and gaps in the response that led to some people sleeping in tents.

“I think we had a very reasonable response, one that I’m proud of,” Pomeranz said. “But, I also know that there are frustrations by the public and I respect that and I am frustrated with elements of the response as well. We stepped up to the occasion, we met the challenge, nothing is perfect.”

Pomeranz said the magnitude of the disaster made it harder for the city to respond as well.

The city created resource centers for people to charge medical equipment, but it took until Friday, August 14, to get those set up. City staff said they assumed shelters and humanitarian aid would fall to non-profits, like the United Way and the American Red Cross.

City leaders plan to review the derecho response.

Confusion on the chain of command from public officials

Emails show the city of Cedar Rapids had its disaster declaration signed as early as the night of the storm but forgot to send it to the Linn County Emergency Coordinator.

City staff said that oversight didn’t create a delay in relief because it was assumed those documents would be signed and completed. The city said it relied on informal, verbal requests for help – putting off the formal written requests that are required to ask for county and state help. Smith said verbal requests are common in the immediate aftermath when communications are down.

“The verbal is just going simply be for that time period until we can get formally established to where we can formally establish into that rhythm of requesting and having it be written," Smith said.

The chain of command for requests for state assistance wasn’t always followed correctly from the city. Emails show the city manager’s office collected and delivered a long list of requests for needs to the governor’s office and the offices of Iowa’s two U.S. Senators. Pomeranz said those lists were to show the need Cedar Rapids had rather than sidestep the chain of command.

“That very exhaustive list, we were seeking help, but we were also showing this is a huge event and we are going to need a lot of help, and that was something I recognized from the very beginning. That we’re going to need a lot of help,” Pomeranz said.

The emails show some elected officials didn’t understand the chain of command or division of responsibilities in the county’s all-hazard plan, which is a planning document used in a disaster’s response so resources aren’t duplicated.

One example includes an ice company located in Minnesota emailing Hart to offer bags of ice and a $1,000 donation. Hart forwarded the request to Jones. However, the company said it never heard back from the city.

The reason is that it’s the job of the non-profit to coordinate its own response rather than the incident commander.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker appeared to be confused about the role different agencies play in disaster response as well. Emails show Walker directing state Rep. Art Staed to Pomeranz for help with organizing food distribution rather than a non-profit. Walker said he wasn’t sure where he heard that the city manager’s office was organizing food distribution, but believes he heard it a phone call or other communication with an official at the city.

Walker said he didn’t know United Way would handle food response until the storm already occurred but believes the event needed multiple groups rather than one organization.

Supervisor Ben Rogers said in an email, on behalf of the entire board of supervisors, that their agency became aware of the proper protocols and procedures to ask for state assistance the day after the storm occurred.

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