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Government officials believe fundamental issues exist in state’s emergency management, creating delays in relief

Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 10:19 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Government officials and non-profit groups both agree Linn County is more prepared to respond to another derecho now, compared to this time last year.

But, officials believe emergency management in Iowa has structural problems that create delays in relief.

Lemi Tilahun, who is a community activist, said he saw these problems at the Cedar Terrace Apartments. There, he saw people sleeping outside in tents because there weren’t shelters in Cedar Rapids.

“A lot of folks felt that they were invisible, that they weren’t seen,” Tilahun said. “It got to the point where people were sleeping in tents because that was their best option.”

These delays occurred because local governments had trouble navigating the bureaucracy within emergency management to receive the correct resources. Government officials also said these delays occur because there are fundamental issues with emergency management in Iowa, which create delays in relief.

Bureaucracy and Delays

Emergency management plans in Iowa rely on mutual aid. Mutual aid refers to communities helping other communities in times of need, normally supplying communities with extra resources. Lon Pluckhahn, who is the former Marion city manager, said the problem with relying on mutual aid is circumstances when every community needs help.

“There’s a bit of a fundamental flaw in Iowa’s system and that is the concept of mutual aid is always going to be available,” Pluckhahn said. “I think that’s an area where the state could and should be a larger player.”

When communities need resources outside a county, they need to coordinate with their county emergency management agency to get those resources. Those requests could, then, get passed to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The state’s emergency management agency may then send the request to another entity.

Governments have to restart the process if they’re not using the right procedure to ask for help.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who is a Democrat, described the process it took for the county to get a resource like water. He said he was frustrated that a seemingly simple request can take a significant amount of time.

“You gotta fill out a form, you gotta appeal to the governor, you need to talk to Iowa Homeland Security,” Walker said. “You just got to get people water. You have to make decisions; these are life safety issues.”

Pluckhahn said this bureaucracy creates delays.

“Bureaucracy hurts when you’re trying to do disaster response,” Pluckhahn said. “Every single step, every single procedural step slows the process down and you’re talking about people’s lives being at stake.”

Electric companies also use mutual aid agreements to turn the power back on after a storm. Terry Sullivan, who is the CEO of Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative, said the lack of bureaucracy allows them to get help fast. He said the lack of layering communication for a request allowed Linn County REC to restore 98% of its grid in about a week.

“The channel is pretty direct, It’s A to B. We don’t have to go through 16 layers,” Sullivan said.

Linda Langston, who is a former member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Advisory Council, said bureaucracy ensures resources don’t get abused. But, she said cities and counties organizing in one room could speed up relief.

“When you have everyone in the room together, the communications are clearer and you get it more quickly,” Langston said.

We wanted to talk about these concerns with Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek and the state agency in charge of emergency management. Both declined on-camera interviews and requested emailed questions instead.

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