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Iowa National Guard Members Head To Linn County As Local Officials Call For State, Federal Assistance

Monday's storm has devastated homes and buildings in eastern Iowa, including this apartment complex near Westdale Drive and 22nd Avenue in Cedar Rapids.
Kate Payne
Monday's storm has devastated homes and buildings in eastern Iowa, including this apartment complex near Westdale Drive and 22nd Avenue in Cedar Rapids.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is mobilizing the Iowa National Guard to Linn County to help rebuild after Monday’s devastating derecho. The activation comes after local officials pleaded for the state and federal government to send assistance as soon as possible, in the wake of what may be the community’s worst natural disaster on record.

Reynolds’ spokesman Pat Garrett confirmed to IPR Thursday night KCRG’s reporting that 100 Guard engineers are headed to Cedar Rapids Thursday and will get to work Friday.

City and county officials say the support is vital.

Worse than the 2008 flood

At the first press conference with local leaders since Monday’s storm, Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said on Thursday the derecho is more far-reaching than the city’s 2008 flood, which devastated the downtown and attracted national attention.

“This is a greater impact than we've ever seen in this community,” Pomeranz said. “The 2008 flood impacted approximately 14 square miles of our city. Our city is 75 square miles and this storm event has impacted all 75 miles of our community.”

City and county staff say they’ve been working around the clock to assess the damage of Monday’s rare and powerful storm, which packed hurricane force winds, caught many residents by surprise and hit in the midst of a historic pandemic that has already uprooted so much of public life.

As of Thursday afternoon, Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith said his staff has done preliminary assessments on about 40 percent of the buildings in the city; of those, approximately 737 residential buildings have so far been categorized as “major damage or destroyed."

Power restoration to most residents may take another week

Widespread power outages due to scores of massive downed trees and significant damage to the area’s electrical grid have left much of eastern Iowa in the dark for days. As of Thursday evening, 72 percent of Linn County customers remained without power, according poweroutage.us.

All of the city’s water and wastewater treatment facilities are currently operating on generator power, according to Utilities Director Steve Hershner.

In nearby Tama County, 70 percent are without power, according to the website. In Benton and Poweshiek Counties, 66-67 percent don’t have power. In Cedar, Jasper and Marshall Counties, 56-58 percent of customers are in the dark.

Cell and internet service remain spotty and unreliable in Linn County. So hamstrung is the area’s telecommunications system, city workers say they’ve resorted to handing out paper leaflets at grocery stores and other key locations to share information.

As of Thursday, phone lines “at all Linn County facilities” remained down, according to a statement. Linn County Emergency Management cannot be reached by landline. At a recent county meeting, a county supervisor, seemingly joking, mentioned the possibility of using walkie talkies to communicate with staff.

Alliant Energy estimates it may take a week to restore electricity to much of the city. But for others it will likely take longer, warned spokesman Mike Wagner, who called the damage “unprecedented” and “unlike anything our company has ever seen."

“We believe that we could substantially restore electricity to most of Cedar Rapids in the next five to seven days,” Wagner said. “There will be some parts where the repair work may be really complicated.”

Record 911 calls, packed ERs

While not everyone in Linn County may be able to call for help, residents certainly need it; Pomeranz said first responders in Cedar Rapids have responded to “record numbers of calls for service” in the first 24 hours after the storm.

“We have responded to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,200 calls for service in the past 72 hours, including structure fires, including injuries, gas leaks and downed power lines,” said Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith.

Area hospitals have also seen patients flood their emergency rooms in the wake of the storm, according to Tim Quinn, Chief of Clinical Operations for Mercy Medical Center.

“Mercy and UnityPoint St. Luke’s have been incredibly busy in terms of emergency room visits. Most of those have been falls, orthopedic injuries, eye injuries, lacerations,” Quinn said.

He added that while damage at the hospitals “has not been catastrophic," he says it has been “definitely widespread."

City can’t handle recovery efforts on its own

City and county officials made urgent, repeated calls for more assistance Thursday, saying they cannot manage the massive response to the far-reaching impacts of the storm on their own, pleading for state and federal resources.

“This storm impacted almost every house, or at least every tree in every neighborhood, of every quadrant, of every city in Linn County,” said Supervisor Ben Rogers.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors has formally called on Reynolds to lobby the federal government for a presidential disaster declaration.

According to Pomeranz, the city and county have submitted their requests for a federal declaration to the state.

Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer joined the press conference Thursday and echoed those calls from local officials.

“We have called on the governor to issue, as quickly as possible, an expedited request for a presidential disaster declaration,” Finkenauer said. “I know that there's a lot going on, they're trying to do what they can but it is quite frankly, it is not fast enough.”

“And on top of that, we need all the help we can get through the United Way, through the Red Cross, and any of all organizations that can set up shelters, that can give food to folks who need it,” she added. “This is very, very serious.”

Reynolds’ spokesman said the governor has talked with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence about the storm impacts and has been assured “she will have the full resources of the federal government."

Reynolds campaigned with Pence Thursday at a “Farmers and Ranchers for Trump” event in Des Moines, and will visit Cedar Rapids on Friday.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter