A hollow request: KCRG-TV9 investigates City of Cedar Rapids’ derecho response

Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 8:22 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 25, 2020 at 3:06 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Documents show the City of Cedar Rapids was struggling with manpower and a desperate need for shelters in the days after the Aug. 10 derecho, but in the immediate aftermath never formally requested that help from the Iowa National Guard.

More than a month after the derecho devastated Cedar Rapids with winds of 140 mph, Cedar Rapids leaders are still unsure who — or what — prompted the Iowa National Guard to deploy and assist with storm recovery. In interviews with KCRG-TV9′s i9 investigative unit, city staff said they were surprised to learn the National Guard was on its way and only then put together a formal request for help.

The Iowa National Guard said it was ready to respond the day after the storm. The following day Major General Ben Corell, adjutant general for the Iowa National Guard, toured the damage with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Reynolds urged cities to submit requests for state help, but it took nearly four days for Guard members to deploy to Cedar Rapids.

After a month-long investigation and open records requests, KCRG-TV9 learned Iowa Homeland Security issued the orders for National Guard deployment shortly after a phone call between Gov. Reynolds and Sen. Senator Liz Mathis. But it appears to have done so by breaking the normal chain of command, with no formal request coming from the City of Cedar Rapids or Linn County Emergency Management.

“I never saw a formal request from the City of Cedar Rapids or any agency for the National Guard until after we were told they were coming,” Linn County Emergency Manager Steve O’Konek told KCRG-TV9.

Questions surrounding the National Guard’s disaster response are still a sore subject for the City of Cedar Rapids. In an interview with KCRG-TV9 two days after the storm, Mayor Brad Hart said that the city decided the Guard was not needed. He later apologized to the city council for mischaracterizing that discussion.

A hollow request for help

Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith, who coordinated the city’s disaster response, said he made an informal, verbal request for Iowa National Guard support on Tuesday, Aug. 11, to Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek. Smith documented many of his verbal requests on daily activity logs obtained by KCRG-TV9, but the National Guard was not mentioned in those logs until Thursday, once the city discovered the Guard had been deployed.

Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith speaks at a briefing on storm recovery on Monday, August 24,...
Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith speaks at a briefing on storm recovery on Monday, August 24, 2020.

Smith described his initial request as more of a discussion, saying the city needed Guard help to clear debris from private property. O’Konek told him the Guard would not perform that task.

“He [O’Konek] is our conduit to the state,” Smith said in an interview this week. “I have a trust in the relationship that he either will pass my request on, or pass the discussion on, or that I can trust that he knows that’s not something that they will fulfill. Therefore, I was ready to address whatever it was that I was addressing that particular day.”

Smith said he knew his verbal request was not the formal one that was needed to activate a National Guard response.

That formal request for National Guard assistance requires a city to submit a written form requesting a specific need to the county emergency management agency. Local emergency management officials then enter the request in a state database, and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management determine the best state resource to meet the need. The Iowa National Guard is one of those resources.

Corell said even if a verbal signal was given from a local jurisdiction, it would still require the written request to deploy.

“That’s the way the process works,” Corell said. “Even if they put it in The Cedar Rapids Gazette and said, ‘We want the National Guard,’ that wouldn’t necessarily be a demand signal that we could respond to.”

Smith said he made several verbal requests to Linn County Emergency Management for resources like urban search and rescue teams, traffic signal repair, and dump trucks. Smith said it’s common for verbal requests to occur in the immediate aftermath of a storm to save time, followed by written documentation later.

Smith admits none of the initial formal requests for state support he submitted should have garnered a response from the Guard. That’s why Smith was surprised to learn the National Guard was on its way on Thursday afternoon.

“By that point, we did not make a formal written request,” he said. “Nor did I think that they were able to serve any missions that we needed at that point.”

At that point, he and other city leaders met with liaisons from the National Guard to learn what those troops could do and then crafted a mission for them. The first time Cedar Rapids formally requested state help that would trigger a National Guard response was Thursday, Aug. 13 at 6 p.m. The first Iowa National Guard troops arrived at 7 p.m.

Corell believes Cedar Rapids leaders were confused about how to ask for help from the National Guard. He said he is frustrated the city is continuing to push the narrative it was asking for National Guard help since Tuesday.

“They can point fingers for whatever reason, but the Iowa National Guard was not requested until Thursday, the 13th,” he said.

‘It seems as if there’s an idea, like, if the National Guard was here sooner, they could have done absolutely everything’

Some city leaders still question how much help was needed from the Guard after the storm. The responsibility for coordinating disaster response in Cedar Rapids fell to Fire Chief Greg Smith, who said he viewed the Iowa National Guard need as symbolic.

“You know obviously you see someone in a uniform or see someone in fatigues, and you have a comfort level that you’re protected,” Smith said.

Cedar Rapids Assistant City Manager Angie Charipar scoffed when asked if the delay in the Guard response really mattered.

“It seems as if there’s an idea, like, if the National Guard was here sooner, they could have done absolutely everything. They could have gotten food, they could have gotten shelter, they would have removed debris from private property, everything would have been cleaned up and ready to go if the National Guard had been on here on Tuesday instead of Thursday,” Charipar said.

A desperate need for shelters

While Corell said the National Guard isn’t the best resource for certain needs, like debris removal on private property, he said the Guard has plenty of other disaster response capabilities, like manpower for humanitarian missions and setting up shelters.

“There’s no definitive answer on what the Guard can do,” he said. “It’s more dependent on what is the mission, what is the resource that is required at the county or local level that’s being requested.”

Corell said that can lead to some confusion on what the Guard can or can’t do.

“Too often I see requests that we need the Iowa National Guard,” he said. “OK, that’s a broad statement. What is the mission that is required?”

Records showed the city struggled with manpower to open up city resource centers and medical charging stations. Smith’s account of the response presented at an Aug. 25 city council meeting noted a desperate need for shelters in the days before the Guard deployed.

The first overnight shelter in the Cedar Rapids area, which was located at the Palo Community Center, did not open until Friday — four days after the storm and a day after troops arrived to assist utility crews. A second overnight shelter opened that night in Cedar Rapids at the Veterans Memorial Building.

Records show those needs were only discussed among city staff rather than formally requested from the state. That’s partially because the city and Smith are not in charge of shelters or humanitarian response under its disaster plan. That falls to nonprofits, including the American Red Cross and United Way.

Smith said the city can assist with shelters and humanitarian needs when those agencies ask for it but said he had assurances that those needs were being met.

“They had the best capabilities in order to stand up those operations,” he said.

‘We stepped up to the occasion; we met the challenge — nothing is perfect’

Leaders acknowledge there were gaps in the organized response to the derecho and the damage that led to some people sleeping in tents outside of their uninhabitable homes.

“When you don’t exercise the established incident management response system, things get delayed and things get confused,” Corell said.

“Fortunately there were no lives, you know, on the edge of needing immediate assistance, but the consequence is, it took a little longer to get power restoration done and get organized to have an effective response.”

While recognizing the city’s response wasn’t perfect, Cedar Rapids city leaders said they did the best they could in a difficult situation.

“I think we had a very reasonable response, one that I’m proud of,” Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff 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.”

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