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‘The first 72 hours you’re on your own:’ Local governments begin preparing for disasters without help from nonprofits

Published: Aug. 9, 2021 at 9:57 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Local governments are beginning to prepare for the next natural disaster, as if they won’t receive help from nonprofits for up to three to four days.

Nonprofits, according to Linn County’s emergency management disaster plan, provide humanitarian relief during a disaster. Those relief efforts include sheltering, emergency food supplies, counseling services, and other vital services to promote disaster recovery efforts.

In October, our i9 Investigative Team found nonprofits were unprepared to distribute relief in the immediate aftermath of the August 10 Derecho. As a consequence, local governments are planning their own humanitarian relief during a disaster.

“The Emergency Management Plan that just broke.”

Lon Pluckhahn, who is the former City Manager for Marion, said the derecho created cell service outages, structural damage, and power outages. He said the city has already completed an After Action Review, a common evaluation tool for disaster responses, which found a broken response.

“Basically that there were a lot of components of the emergency management plan that just broke,” Pluckhahan said. “For better or worse, Iowa’s emergency management response is built around this idea of mutual aid where if Marion has a problem you could call Dubuque or you can call Waterloo. Well, one, that doesn’t work if you can’t call and, two, it doesn’t really work if they are impacted too and don’t have any resources to send over.”

Pluckhahan said the result was Marion, a city of under 40,000 people, running every aspect of a disaster response.

“For about the first 72 hours, we were using exclusively our own resources,” Pluckhahn said. “We were trying to do everything we could with our own crews.”

In September, our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team found Linn County Emergency Management declined help from other public agencies and private companies during the storm. Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek declined to talk with i9 on camera and instead sent a statement explaining a number of improvements, but cautioned these improvements will take time to fully implement.

This list includes updating shelter lists, increasing human resources to help operate shelters, searching for ways to improve providing information and creating more training opportunities for leaders across Linn County.

Pluckhahn, who left Marion on Monday for a new job in Vancouver, Washington, said those training sessions are important, but he said it is difficult to retain information at those training sessions.

“A lot of times, unfortunately, those can be set it and forget it,” Pluckhahn said. “You know you do it once, you do it twice, do your refreshers periodically. This disaster really showed us the need to have more focus internally.”

Pluckhahn said the city is planning on doing its own tabletop exercises, along with thinking about maintaining databases for people with health needs, like insulin. The city is also searching for spaces for social services and space to add shelters. After the storm, the city of Cedar Rapids made an effort in July to create its own shelters too.

i9 asked the city of Cedar Rapids for an on-camera interview on Monday. Greg Buelow, who is a spokesperson for the city of Cedar Rapids, sent us general statements in an email that the city is working with Linn County Emergency Management to strengthen its emergency management plan, including building redundancies to provide shelters in a timely fashion.

Unlike Marion, the city of Cedar Rapids hired a consultant in March to review its response to the derecho. Atchison Consulting, which is based in Tennesse, is being paid around $25,000 to conduct the review. In September, our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative team found the people running Cedar Rapids’ response didn’t understand the capabilities and never properly call for National Guard help. Cedar Rapids city manager Jeff Pomeranz did admit there were gaps in the cities response.

The city of Cedar Rapids is also participating in another review through Linn County. Collective Clarity, which is owned by a former leader with United Way of East Central Iowa, is being paid around $40,000 to conduct its review. Linn County is also preparing to open county buildings to act as shelters if there is a need during a storm like a derecho.

Nonprofits and expectations

After some nonprofits were unable to immediately fulfill their role in responding to a disaster, local governments are beginning to prepare their own humanitarian relief resources.

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, or LAP-AID. For example, the American Red Cross is the sole organization in charge of establishing and managing shelters.

However, the Red Cross didn’t understand the need on the ground for shelters, which resulted in the first overnight shelter in Cedar Rapids being opened 4 days after the derecho hit Eastern Iowa. The Red Cross did open a shelter in Marion, the day after the storm hit. But, it could only allow 15 people in the space at a time due to COVID-19. Instead, the group put people in hotels as far away as Cedar Falls overnight.

Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team asked the Red Cross for an on-camera interview about their ability to set up shelters in the future. We also wanted to ask about any lessons the group learned to better respond to a storm, like a derecho. Instead, the Red Cross sent us an emailed statement about only the lessons it learned.

Joshua Murray, who is the regional communications director for the American Red Cross of Nebraska and Iowa, said it learned it could keep people safe from COVID-19 with proper mitigation strategies, train more local volunteers to stop people traveling from far away, and can continue performing tasks remotely.

In October, Murray said he was unsure if the Red Cross can fulfill the role of shelters in the future. He also said, in October, the Red Cross being less present during the recovery efforts due to COVID-19 was a mistake.

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

Linda Langston, who is a former member of FEMA’s National Advisory Council, said some disaster response groups have decreased their presence. She said this affects their ability to provide relief in the immediate aftermath.

”So some don’t have a local on the ground presence, which means response times are going to be slower,” Langston said. “It’s going to take them longer to hear about the scale of the disaster. And it’s going to take longer to get resources.”

Langston recommends cities and counties prepare for disasters like nobody else is going to show up. Pluckhahn said Marion is going to prepare like nobody else is showing up for three to four days.

“What we might have to do is not count on them for the first 72-hour or 96 hours,” Pluckhahn said. “We’re going to have to meet the immediate needs and plan, I would call it always ‘Plan B,’ the first 72 hours you’re on your own.”

Pluchahan said a possible solution is partnering up with national groups to create a larger local presence. Regardless, the solution he believes it’s important to begin making plans because disasters appear to be happening more often. However, Pluckhahn understands there is an opportunity cost because training employees costs time and money.

“If I’m training my city engineer on what’s their role and responsibility in the emergency operations center, that’s time they can’t focus on a construction project,” Pluckhahn said.

Pluckhahn also said smaller communities than Marion will have trouble trying to respond to an emergency themselves.

“It’s one of those things that as it becomes part of the culture, part of the organization, part of the expectation it’s easier,” Pluckhahn said. “And I’ll say frankly for Marion, it’s going to be easier than it is for a Robins or smaller communities that just don’t have the level of staff or don’t have the professional staff that we do or the resources we do to that training.”

FEMA does give out grants to communities for hazard mitigation strategies, but it’s unclear if that could fund enough training along with other projects.

Shawn Debaar, who is the captain for the Salvation Army in Cedar Rapids, said there isn’t a single entity capable of responding to a disaster by themselves. He said that’s partially the reason emergency management plans split roles between different groups.

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