On August 10, 2020, Cedar Rapids was confronted with an unprecedented disaster that impacted the entire community. The derecho was virtually a no-notice severe weather event that caused destruction and many barriers that city employees would need to overcome to provide a disaster response. The magnitude and severity of the derecho, coupled with extended power outages, loss of primary communications, and COVID restrictions, presented an enormously complex incident environment for both city employees and emergency partners. Recognized as the most destructive severe thunderstorm in the United States history, the derecho damaged thousands of homes and businesses. The derecho also destroyed 669,000 trees causing an enormous amount of debris.
In March 2020, the City of Cedar Rapids contracted with Atchison Consulting to provide a strategic, third-party review of the City of Cedar Rapids response to the derecho. Through data collection, analysis, and engagement efforts, the “After Action Report,” or AAR allows the City to understand disaster response strengths and areas for improvements. It is designed to help develop a roadmap to improve core capabilities city-wide. The AAR allows the City to enhance and implement operational and tactical plans, as well as policies and procedures to strengthen individual city departments and the city government capabilities as a whole. The AAR also includes a Process Guide for Requesting Resources, which details how local jurisdictions, like Cedar Rapids, are the first tier of the incident management process. The guide details how resources are requested and who has authorization to activate particular resources at a county, state and federal level.
Developed by Atchison Consulting, an independent consulting firm specializing in emergency management, the report’s intent was to focus on the City of Cedar Rapids’ response, and is not intended to evaluate coordinating agencies or jurisdictions outside of Cedar Rapids.
“When faced with an unprecedented disaster, dedicated City employees worked tirelessly and selflessly to help their community,” said Cathleen Atchison, Owner of Atchison Consulting Service. “The City of Cedar Rapids committed to a thorough and comprehensive After Action Review so the experiences and lessons learned from the August 2020 derecho can be a catalyst for strengthening preparedness within city government and within the community. I am confident the work they have done and continue to do will lead to developing a new level of resilience and readiness in Cedar Rapids.”
The AAR focuses on five Core Capabilities and provides high-level context for capturing strengths and opportunities for growth.
- Operational Communications: An analysis of communications within the City government, communications with emergency management partners, and communications with the public. Strengths included communications methods employed when internet, cellular phone, and other traditional forms of communication were unavailable. Opportunities for growth included formalizing atypical actions that overcome communications challenges. This includes finding ways to reach the public when traditional communications capabilities are disrupted and ascertaining how to ensure timely understanding if support response efforts are not available from external emergency management partners.
- Operational Coordination: An analysis of the establishment and maintenance of a unified and coordinated operational structure, which includes the activation of the City’s Incident Command Center. Emergency planning, training, and exercises, as well as implementation of lessons learned from previous disasters, were seen as a strength. Opportunities for growth include incorporating specific coordination challenges from the derecho into preparedness, response and recovery plans. Another opportunity identified was to inform all employees, elected officials, and external stakeholders of the standardized, appropriate emergency management resource request process.
- Situational Assessment: An analysis of processes used to provide decision makers with decision-relevant information regarding the nature and extent of the disaster and the status of the disaster response. City leaders and employees applied lessons learned from previous disasters was a strength and assisted in the decision-making process. Opportunities for growth include formalizing response and Continuity of Operations plans to provide situational updates to employees, leadership, elected officials and community members, and enhancing information sharing with all citizens, including vulnerable populations.
- Risk and Disaster Resilience Assessment: An analysis of risk and disaster resilience that allows decision makers, responders, and community members to reduce risk and build further resilience. The City’s development of an Incident Management Team, pre-vetted list of vendors that support disaster response and recovery efforts, and ongoing training activities were strengths. An opportunity for growth identified was the development of a comprehensive annual risk assessment in partnership with Linn County Emergency Management Agency.
- Mass Care Services: An analysis of life-sustaining and human services to the population, including hydration, feeding, sheltering, temporary housing, evacuations, and distribution of emergency supplies. The City’s strength was established relationships with Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster (LAP-AID) and other non-governmental and volunteer organizations that support vulnerable populations in a time of need. The opportunity for growth included identifying additional personnel to serve in liaison positions to coordinate and work with mass care service providers. Having additional liaisons and fostering partnerships will create a stronger understanding of resources available, capability changes and restrictions throughout the year. It was also recommended the City coordinate with Linn County Emergency Management Agency to identify and ensure Mass Care services are providing meaningful service to vulnerable populations under their purview.
According to Fire Chief Greg Smith, who is the designated Incident Commander for the City of Cedar Rapids, “The After Action Report is an integral part of disaster response assessment and further emergency preparedness. It is important to recognize strengths and build upon those successes. Nearly every disaster unveils opportunities for growth. It is important to recognize growth opportunities and take steps to incorporate recommendations. Improving disaster preparedness and response capabilities is essential to reducing the risk of serious injury and property damage in our community when a disaster strikes. City employees will be on the front line and will need to be resourceful, adaptable and proficient. We will continue to learn from the derecho, as we have with previous disasters. And we are committed to working with our emergency response partners, including other governmental and not-for-profit organizations, for a coordinated disaster response effort.”
The City of Cedar Rapids is committed to the recommendations and formalizing processes, plans and procedures to prepare for, respond to, and recover from future all-hazards disasters. Already, prior to the release of the AAR, the City developed an emergency preparedness initiative called “Neighborhood PACT,” which helps prepare the community for different types of emergencies that could occur and provides actionable steps before, during and after a disaster. The PACT helps community members develop a family emergency plan, build an emergency supply kit, and articulates ways in which individuals can get involved in the community and help their neighbors. All City employees receive training in National Incident Management System, so every employee understands the framework for the incident command system and can contribute to the disaster response. The City has continued to develop and enhance a Continuity of Operations plan to assure roles are fulfilled in an emergency and employees know how they can contribute to the disaster response.
The City is also planning regular table-top disaster exercises with employees beginning this winter to further develop proficiency and apply lessons learned to enhance the City’s disaster response.