Iowans across the state are still reeling from last week's devastating derecho storm. With damage totaling several billion dollars, it will be a long road to clean-up and rebuild. We'll discuss the storm's impact on this edition of Iowa Press.
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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 21 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.
Yepsen: According to state officials, more than a third of Iowa's counties were hard-hit by last week's derecho storm. It's estimated more than 8,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, millions of acres of corn and soybeans impacted, along with the loss of as much as a hundred million bushels of grain storage. Hundreds of thousands of Iowans were left without power and almost two weeks later some still wait for it to be restored. To talk about it, Cedar Rapids suffered perhaps the biggest brunt of the storm, and joining us at the Iowa Press table today is Cedar Rapids City Council member Tyler Olson. Also here to help us better understand what happened is state climatologist Justin Glisan.
Yepsen: Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you both for breaking away from your busy schedules to be with us here today. We appreciate it.
Thanks for having us.
Glad to be here.
Yepsen: Journalists across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, let's just sort of brief people on how things exist in Cedar Rapids right now. I checked on Friday morning and it appeared there were about 11,000 customers, homes, businesses, schools, still without power. Explain what the power situation is in your community.
Olson: We still have a significant number, as you mentioned, that are without power. In a typical storm we would say 11,000 to 14,000 people is a lot. In this situation it's less than a fifth of what it was last week. Power is really one of the top priorities, a lot of health and safety concerns come with not having power and we're going on almost two weeks where a number of our folks don't have power.
Henderson: What about the housing situation? Mr. Yepsen mentioned that some houses have just been condemned. Are you able to do that yet in some areas, all areas of the city?
Olson: So, the city has been through at least once and maybe twice in a number of places to make sure that structures are safe. There are about probably 300 to 400 living units that we believe are totally destroyed and probably 1,200 that are so severely damaged that they really can't be lived in. That is obviously a big concern for the community and we're looking for federal help to deal with the short-term, but we're going to have a lot of work to do over the long-term to replace those units.
Yepsen: How does this compare to floods that Cedar Rapids has had over the years? We can all recall at least a couple.
Olson: Yeah, this is worse than 2008. I was in the legislature in 2008 and dealt with some of the aftermath and recovery from that. 2008 affected about 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids, this is pretty much all 75 square miles of the community that were affected, hundreds more homes and buildings were destroyed. And so we're really working hard, we know some lessons from 2008, but this is more significant than that.
Murphy: Dr. Glisan, help us take a step back from this and just kind of describe for us meteorologically here what happened? What is a derecho? And did I pronounce that correctly?
Glisan: Derecho, correct, yes. And derecho was actually termed here in Iowa in 1888 by Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs at the University of Iowa to describe straight wind events versus rotational tornadic events. So if we think about run-of-the-mill thunderstorms you have an updraft, warm, moist air condenses out into a cloud, rains out that downdraft as cool air hits the surface and typically shuts the thunderstorm off. What we saw in a derecho line is a complex of thunderstorms in which the updrafts are able to tilt backways. So when you have updrafts tilting backwards you get warm air, warm, dry air hitting warm, moist air. That moist air will evaporate, cool down the air aloft and that air just rapidly drops, hits the surface and spreads out. In a derecho, you have a cold pool that is put out by the thunderstorm, so cold air in front of it, think of sweat on your hands. That cold air actually perpetuates those thunderstorms because it forces up warm, moist air in front so you get thunderstorms that keep developing. Now, that line starts to bow out when you get a cold pool behind it, when it bows out you get a rear inflow jet that is pushing into it, you're sustaining those downbursts. So you get downburst clusters that fall right after each other. If you looked at video over a half an hour of these downburst clusters you would see waves and waves of very high winds. So it is a complex system that was on the ground for 770 miles.
Murphy: And we had winds that reached, what, well over 100 miles an hour here, right?
Glisan: Yes, we had some estimates between 130 and 140 miles per hour. The highest gust that we have is from a personal weather station in Atkins, Iowa, 126 miles per hour.
Yepsen: Is that a record for this state?
Glisan: For straight line winds it quite possibly could be. We're still in the quality control stage of that, but yes for straight line winds that is an exceedingly fast wind speed.
Murphy: How common are these kinds of storms?
Glisan: So, climatologically we have a good idea what temperature and precipitation we can expect for summer and fall, for example, that's what climatology is. In terms of derecho, typically we see a derecho every two years across the state of Iowa. Now, if you look back to 1980 we've had 10 on record. This one will go down as a significant weather day in Iowa history.
Yepsen: Excuse me, Kay, I find that a fascinating piece of Iowa trivia that the term derecho, which most of us can't pronounce, was coined by an Iowan. Tell me that again.
Glisan: So, if you think of my position as state climatologist, Dr. Hinrichs was actually the first official weather observer for the state of Iowa back in the late 1800s. So he was studying these straight line wind events and derecho is a Spanish word that you can derive from straight or direct, so straight line winds. So he coined the term and it has been in service ever since.
Henderson: And he's kind of an interesting character, he also had a role in discovering the atom.
Glisan: Absolutely. So, he is a triple threat.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, there has been discussion about how much warning people had before this storm reached their community. How much warning was there in Cedar Rapids?
Olson: It was about 40 to 45 minutes of warning. People had seen pictures of Central Iowa and what had happened here, but my understanding is it gathered speed and ended up being more severe when it reached Eastern Iowa, so we weren't expecting that level. But there was about 40 or 45 minutes worth of warning, which is enough probably to get to a safe place for most people, but when you're thinking about marshaling the kind of resources that you need to respond to the human need and infrastructure need after, typically you would see one to two weeks of warning for a hurricane, for example, and we just didn't have that. We were forced to respond with the resources that we have.
Henderson: So, Mr. Glisan, he mentioned that folks in Florida, hey we may have this storm coming from down south. Why is it that forecasters aren't able to give enough warning, a couple of weeks, before a derecho?
Glisan: Sure, that's a great question. Derecho's are an extreme event. Forecasting extreme events is a difficult task to do. Now, we saw the line start in southern South Dakota, it moved over the border into Iowa from Nebraska about 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning. It had some severe warnings associated with it but I was on an extension call with some regional climatologists and we were talking about wanting this line to stay together because it was moving into the D3 drought region in West Central Iowa. It just so happens that it hit an explosively unstable atmosphere and it exploded about east of Carroll and then as it moved through the Des Moines Metro we start to see it bowing out, what we call the bow echo, and that is the backwards C that you see on radar. When you see a line start to push out in the middle like that you know that the downbursts are starting to become more severe and more intense and as it moved towards Cedar Rapids that is where we saw the microburst and downburst clusters really start to take hold.
Henderson: So, are you unable to forecast it in the same manner that people are able to say this could develop into a hurricane because a hurricane is over water and this is over land? Or what is it?
Glisan: The interesting thing that morning is if you look at the storm prediction center's convected outlooks that give us an idea of where severe weather could occur, there was a slight risk from Kansas City to St. Louis, nothing across the state of Iowa. So as this line, as I said, propagated across the border it hit warm, moist air and it just exploded. And trying to get all of those atmospheric parameters together, we have a derecho parameter, it wasn't showing up until that line really started intensifying near Carroll.
Murphy: Tyler, you mentioned the response effort some of the citizens of your community but across Iowa have been frustrated as they wait for help to clean up disasters and destruction in their area. Give us a sense if you could, do you feel that the response, whether it be from the state or from the Cedar Rapids community, has that been adequate? Has the speed been sufficient? And maybe expand on the challenges that you faced.
Olson: Sure, as we started the show with there's still 14,000 people without power. And so we understand that frustration, people are going to be close to two weeks. Immediately after the storm the city of Cedar Rapids started gathering its incident command leaders, realized very quickly that this was a storm and damage that we were not going to be able to handle on our own and so our first call is always to the regional emergency management association, for us it's the Linn County Emergency Management Association. We began that contact on Monday afternoon and continued on Tuesday morning as we assessed the damage asking for resources. We knew we were going to need help with debris removal, we knew we were going to need help with shelter, we knew we were going to need help distributing food and water. So we started asking very quickly for those resources. I think part of the issue is the warning that there just was not the time ahead of time to gather those resources. But the city put every single piece of equipment, every single member of our team on recovery immediately and so we've been working through that process. But when you don't have power for going on two weeks there's going to be frustration and we understand that and we're frustrated that we can't get that back sooner.
Murphy: From your perspective as a city official, have the state and federal governments been helpful partners in Cedar Rapids?
Olson: We were disappointed that Governor Reynolds didn't stop on Tuesday when she was in the area. But once you've seen it and once she saw it she has been very responsive. She has sent state resources and then obviously worked with the President to get the presidential disaster declaration made and we were able to get the individual assistance part of it approved just yesterday or this morning.
Murphy: Dr. Glisan, how fair is it, should government entities in Iowa have been a little better prepared to react faster to this? Or is that unfair to expect for an event as unique as this?
Glisan: Sure, and I'm a scientist, but let's look at the derecho, as I said it's an extreme event. And once the National Weather Service had in their modeling and once those warnings were issued they were on top of it. And we did have about an hour to 45 minutes, I have a meteorology background so I know when to take warnings seriously, but yes this was an unexpected, explosive event and getting those resources available when you're not exactly sure when a derecho is going to happen, given the extreme nature of it, it's a very difficult thing.
Henderson: So are there uniform standards statewide for when the sirens go off or is that a community level decision?
Glisan: I believe that's a community level emergency management issue.
Henderson: Would it be helpful to have statewide standards so that we all know because we may be traveling across a city line somewhere else we're not familiar with.
Glisan: Sure. And part of that is my responsibility of educating the population of the state. So that is something that we can do better to get people more in line with when we do have high wind warnings versus tornado warnings. People often think of when those sirens go off it's a tornado warning. Well, those sirens are meant for people outside, those are not meant for people inside houses. So those are some things that we need to do a better job of communicating to the general public.
Yepsen: Do we, Dr. Glisan, do we get warned too often? It seems like every now and then you sit down and watch television and there's beep, beep, beep and there's some storm in South Dakota that is headed toward Lyon County and after a while you really wonder if we aren't crying wolf with our warning system.
Glisan: And that's what we call the girl who cried wolf because yes there are warning situations in which we do warn too much, but in a situation like a derecho, as we have been discussing, we didn't have a clear forecast of it. I will say our lead times for tornadoes and severe weather in general are getting much better than they were just 10 years ago. So those lead time expansions really do help the general public get inside and stay hunkered down when necessary.
Yepsen: Mr. Olson, you've served in the legislature, you're on the city council now, we're already into post-mortems here even though you've got a horrible mess yet to clean up in Cedar Rapids. But looking at this over what do we do differently, what should policymakers, what do you know right now that policymakers like legislators, governors, city officials, what should we do different to be prepared for next time?
Olson: Well, I think that the lack of warning time I think made it a little bit difficult this time. And so investing in resources to make sure that we understand more how that all, how the weather and the science fits together would be helpful. And I think also beefing up and investing in our disaster response capability would be helpful. We started immediately Monday and Tuesday requesting resources, but especially in the middle of a disaster it takes a little bit of time to get those. So I think if we invested more in being able to respond to disasters that I happen to believe are going to probably continue to occur more and more frequently, we'll be better prepared to meet the critical needs of our citizens.
Yepsen: What about infrastructure? After the floods in Des Moines in '93 they built the levees around the water plant higher and it worked, it did protect the city. Are there infrastructure improvements that we need to make?
Olson: Well, I wonder if we can't distribute resources around the state and have them ready in different parts of the state instead of perhaps keeping them more centrally located. You talk about infrastructure, we're still in the middle of building our flood protection system to respond to the flood of 2008, that's how long some of these major infrastructure projects take. Storm shelters are important. I heard from a lot of folks that got caught out in the storm or were caught in buildings that didn't probably have adequate storm protection in place. So those are things that I think we can continue to invest in as a state to make sure that people are as safe as possible.
Yepsen: Same question to you. Can you think of things policymakers ought to be doing to be better prepared? You've talked about warning systems. What else ought to be on the checklist here?
Glisan: I think if we're looking at severe weather or we look at flooding we should look at the trends that we're seeing in the observational record. We're seeing a temperature rise across the state, more water vapor available in the atmosphere, so we're more prone to flash flooding and aerial flooding. Now, in terms of derechos and severe weather there is a silver lining there. With a warmer atmosphere it looks like we're relaxing the instability that we're seeing in the atmosphere that would cause severe weather events. And there have been studies that show severe weather is starting to shift further poleward with the jets since there is a relaxation between the mid-latitudes and the high latitude temperature gradient. A relaxed temperature gradient slows down the jet and you get less active events. I would say I live in Beaverdale in Des Moines, we have lots of old trees and our power lines are exposed. We had a lot of tree damage to those power lines. Newer communities those lines are buried, that's easy to do, not so much in these older communities. So again I would think taking the science and looking at where we're moving would give us some idea of how to pre-position certain resources, especially in terms of flooding.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, there are people who are watching this show saying, I want to help. What do you need in terms of volunteers and food, diapers, whatever?
Olson: We have a number of local organizations that are providing shelter and like you mentioned those essential needs. We have two organizations that have set up community disaster response funds that will prioritize those needs and get the funds to the private partners that are providing them. One is the United Way of East Central Iowa and the other is the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. We also have a couple of organizations dealing with our immigrant population that was particularly hard hit. These disasters tend to affect most populations that are already financially stressed otherwise. The Catherine McAuley Center, for example, is one of those organizations.
Henderson: Mr. Glisan, what should individuals do now that we've seen this event, we see tornadoes all the time, are there things that we should do in our own home or business that you are worried that we're not doing to be better prepared?
Glisan: Sure, that's a great question. Have a weather radio, number one. As I mentioned those sirens outside are not meant for inside. Also, have a to-go bag. You never know when your electric is going to go off, you never know if you're going to have a gas leak in your house, as happened at my house. Having a better awareness of what is happening out in the environment gives you an idea if you do have short warning that you can take cover wherever you can find cover. We had some people stuck outside because the warnings were not heeded and we had multiple sirens going off, which can be confusing. In general, in terms of myself as a state climatologist, I am here to educate people and we need to do a better job about getting out into the community and really stressing that severe weather is nothing that you should take with a grain of salt.
Murphy: Despite those short warnings, the fatalities from this have been pretty low. Does that surprise you? Did we kind of get lucky given the destruction that we've seen?
Glisan: The widespread scale of this, yes, if we look at the swath anywhere from 70 to 80 miles north to south and as I mentioned 770 miles east to west, I believe 3 fatalities right now, that's 3 too many but given the intensity of this derecho event, as I mentioned, it will go down in state history. It was very surprising but also gratifying that people were able to take shelter.
Murphy: Dr. Glisan, Mr. Olson mentioned this earlier about resources. How about experts like yourself, do you and your colleagues have the resources that you feel you need to look ahead and try and help people be prepared for events like this? Or is this something that policymakers should be aware of too and give folks like yourself some help?
Glisan: Sure. 2020, COVID has really given us an edge on getting out to people, we do a lot of webinars, a lot of Zoom conference calls. We've been discussing things that people can do in terms of severe weather recently but also flooding, those kinds of issues. So, our outreach, and we do have a very great regional set of meteorologists and climatologists, we're doing I think a great job in actual outreach and the amount of people that have asked for presentations or information on this tells us that people are paying attention to what is going on outside. So yes, we do have great resources and we're trying to use those resources as efficiently as possible.
Yepsen: More resources could be used.
Glisan: You could always get more resources, absolutely.
Yepsen: Well, the first function of government, the reason governments were founded was the protection of public safety and health. So it seems to me that people like you ought to have first dip in the bucket when politicians go around in Iowa and decide what we need. If you need more forecasters, if you need more equipment, why aren't you asking for it?
Glisan: Well, forecasting is on the federal level with the National Weather Service and I work closely with them as well. But again, there are monetary constraints there. I do believe though that the forecasting capability that we have is top notch and we do get the events pretty much correct.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, the President, as you mentioned, approved individual assistance and businesses may apply for that as well as individuals for home damage and personal property damage. Do you foresee asking the state of Iowa to do something in your community beyond the aid that is being offered by the federal government?
Olson: Yes. We're going to need long-term partners and long-term help to rebuild the community, in particular regarding housing we've already had a few conversations with the state government. The apartments in particular that were hardest hit are affordable rents. Many communities in Iowa struggle with that, we did before this disaster and this is really going to exacerbate that problem. So in particular we'll be talking with the state about affordable housing and I'm sure there will be other requests as well.
Yepsen: Dr. Glisan, we've got less than a minute. In the south, in Florida when they go through these storms in the past they have changed construction standards. Now, you can't build -- it has prevented in subsequent hurricanes as much damage. Should Iowa be asking that its building codes be updated?
Glisan: Well, as I mentioned, the climatology of derechos and tornadoes are few and far between. But yes, you can always upgrade, especially in terms of tornadoes, building codes, hurricane clips on houses to prevent catastrophic damage, yes of course.
Yepsen: Gentlemen, thank you very much for this. I know you're busy and I do appreciate your time to be with us today.
I appreciate the invitation, glad to be here.
Yepsen: Multiple charities and organizations are accepting donations and volunteer help. If you want to contribute, many of your fellow Iowans could use the assistance. Next week on Iowa Press, we'll discuss voting issues with Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald. That's Iowa Press next week at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.