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Nonprofits caught off guard, unprepared and unaware of need for help after derecho

Published: Oct. 8, 2020 at 8:14 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The first overnight shelter in Cedar Rapids, which was located at the Veterans Memorial Building, opened more than 4 days after the derecho hit Eastern Iowa.

According to Linn County’s Disaster Plan, the American Red Cross is the sole organization responsible for setting up shelters. But, KCRG-TV9′s i9 investigative unit learned through interviews with the Red Cross setting up shelters took multiple days because the nonprofit didn’t fully understand the situation on the ground until days after the storm hit. Other nonprofits were caught off guard and unprepared.

Nonprofits run county and cities humanitarian response

Linn County’s disaster plan divides different responsibilities when a disaster hits between three main groups: local governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

Nonprofits provide sheltering, emergency food supplies, counseling services, and other vital support services to promote recovery efforts. These roles are split between the different non-profit organizations, like the Red Cross, United Way, the Salvation Army and other organizations a part of Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster (LAP-AID).

For example, the American Red Cross is the sole organization in charge of establishing and managing shelters. The United Way organizes volunteer efforts. The Salvation Army helps to feed people.

“Disappointing” efforts from the Red Cross to create shelters

The city of Cedar Rapids said it did not call or look into the National Guard setting up shelters because it received assurances those needs would be accomplished. However, the Red Cross told us it was never truly aware of the situation on the ground.

Joshua Murray, who is the regional communications director for the American Red Cross of Nebraska and Iowa, said the regional office was not fully aware of the need for shelters on the ground.

“We learned more and more as each day went on," he said. ”And so yeah, it was a couple of days later before we truly knew the extent of the damage, the extent of the people who still needed shelter."

Murray said it normally establishes shelters after being notified by government partners or local chapters, but said those messages didn’t make it to the regional office based in Nebraska.

Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek said he asked for the Red Cross to establish shelters as early as Monday, the day the storm hit Cedar Rapids.

“Any agency that is going to do sheltering and we had that expectation of the red cross,” he said. “The question, I have, ‘is that an unrealistic expectation?' and if it is then I need to find resources in my county to be able to provide that resource when the expectation is not met."

Murray said he is unsure if the Red Cross can fulfill the role of shelters in the future.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Again, that’s a good question, you know we respond to the need we are aware of, so as soon as we find out that there is a need for a shelter, wherever it might be, we respond accordingly. That’s our responsibility and we will continue to carry it out.”

The Red Cross did open a day shelter in Marion, the day after the storm hit. However, it could only allow 15 people in the space at a time due to COVID-19. Instead, it put people in hotels as far away as Cedar Falls overnight.

Murray said the Red Cross was less present during the recovery efforts because of Covid-19. He said it was a mistake the nonprofit has changed for other disasters, like the wildfires in California.

“We weren’t there physically like we’ve been before, as much,” he said. “And that’s lesson learned. We’re acknowledging that’s less learned.”

Absent Leadership

Shalla Ashworth, who is the director of development and communications for the Salvation Army, said the two officers for its Cedar Rapids chapter were absent when the storm hit because they were on vacation.

She led her response to the derecho for the group, but she wasn’t aware of the county’s disaster plan.

“We know what our role is the fact that we know to immediately try to go and help people,” Ashworth said. “That’s what we do.”

She said after the Salvation Army’s building got power back two days after the storm hit, it then began its role of helping to feed people and brought in other volunteers from across the United States.

“We work with Linn County Management, we contact them, tell them we’re ready to roll,” Ashowrth said. “They tell us where to go, where the need is the most.”

She said she can’t answer if there was a gap in their response because her organization is still responding to the storm.

Ashworth said she’s experienced many hurricanes, but was never in a wide-scale disaster where she lost cell service and other methods of communication. She said she drove to Linn County Emergency Management Agency to receive instructions and believes communication methods should be revaluated.

“It is in my mind, when we revisit our disaster plan, our emergency plans, we need to have a section in there about what steps we take when absolutely no communication exists, during a flood, during most disasters, you don’t lose the ability to make a phone call. It really threw us back into the 1970′s when we couldn’t just pick up the phone and call, so that’s one step that all groups need to look a little closer at because it was something we never expected to happen."

Unexpected and Unprecedented Storm

The United Way of East Central Iowa role is to coordinate and organize volunteers during a disaster. The group is responsible for setting up the Emergency Volunteer Center.

Kristen Roberts, who is the CEO and President of United Way of East Central Iowa, began serving her role as early as August 2020. She said it was set up and running two days after the storm hit Eastern Iowa and publicized at the city’s first press conference the following day.

“I think looking back at what we knew at the time and the resources we had available to us, I think we worked as quickly as possible,” she said. I think we activated on Tuesday we were up and running on Wednesday. I think that’s pretty good for what we have in front of us."

Other volunteer groups were created online during the storm and grew rapidly, most prominently the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource Facebook Page. Roberts said the page didn’t fill a vacuum but required more than just one organization to recover.

“I think it’s such a large disaster, we needed each other to help each other out,” she said.

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.

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