Regardless of what you think of his political positions, Terry Branstad knew instinctively what being governor entailed.
A core duty is looking out for people when they most need help after a disaster.
Branstad’s skill, and the skill of local officials, too, was on display in the summer of 1993 in the hours after one of the biggest natural disasters to hit Des Moines.
Unfortunately, last week’s devastating storm through Iowa’s midsection showed that today’s state and local government leaders lack some of those instincts Branstad used effectively.
Early in the morning of July 11, 1993, three days after torrential storms dumped 8 to 10 inches of rain northwest of Des Moines, the Raccoon River carried that water over the top of the levee surrounding the city’s water treatment plant.
With the water rising inside the plant, the staff shut down the pumps and turned off the treatment equipment at 3:02 a.m. When residents awoke later that morning, they learned Des Moines would be without a dependable source of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation for an unknown length of time.
Branstad did not stand around wondering what role the state should play in helping the community resolve the disaster. Neither did city leaders nor waterworks officials.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own.
Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/
Branstad did not take an I’ll-get-around-to-that-in-a-few-days position on whether the National Guard was needed. He acted swiftly – and 550 Iowa National Guard soldiers were sent to Des Moines to staff water distribution sites and assist police.
A Texas National Guard helicopter was summoned to airlift in a huge pump to remove about 14 feet of flood water from inside the waterworks’ treatment facilities.
A New York National Guard cargo plane hauled four Guard water filtration units from North Dakota to Des Moines to produce safe drinking water for the city’s hospitals and nursing homes.
Seven days after the disaster hit, the treatment plant began pumping water again, although it initially was not safe to drink. A few days later, there was this banner headline in The Des Moines Register: “And on Day 12, we flushed.”
The decisive action in 1993 is in stark contrast with the government dithering we saw last week, notably in Cedar Rapids. Three-fourths of the homes and businesses in Iowa’s second-largest city had no power, no cell phone service and no Internet access.
Even by Sunday night, 40 percent of Alliant Energy customers were still without power.
The Aug. 10 storm brought winds of 100 mph – equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane.
They tore a corridor two counties wide along U.S. Highway 30 and Interstate Highway 80 from west-central Iowa all the way to the Mississippi River.
Tens of thousands of trees were uprooted or snapped off in Cedar Rapids. The debris brought down power lines. Utility crews were helpless to string new lines and get electric service restored until the trees were cut up and cleared away.
Utility crews and contractors began work immediately after the storm passed. But Gov. Kim Reynolds did not mobilize the Iowa National Guard until Thursday night, even though the Guard’s construction units with their heavy equipment and trucks could have been removing tons of fallen trees for three days.
Reynolds did not ask President Trump for an emergency disaster declaration until Sunday night. That delay kept experts from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, out of the state while Iowans struggled to find shelter, meals, medicine and assistance.
Reynolds said the National Guard was not called up sooner because Cedar Rapids city officials assured her they did not need the help.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart was asked on Wednesday about residents’
frustrations over the storm response. He told KCRG-TV he conferred immediately with City Manager Jeff Pomeranz after the storm clobbered the city.
“I talked to him about the National Guard. I talked to him about it immediately and … the thought was that we really don’t need the National Guard in here,” Hart said. “I didn’t think enough at that time to say, ‘OK, well, could they do charging stations? Could they bring ice? Could they direct traffic?’
“I didn’t think to ask those things. But it’s not like the National Guard shows up and everything is fine.”
That’s true, but the delays in the state and local governments’ response to the disaster is more than just an inconvenience for people. The damage to some apartments left them uninhabitable, forcing low-income tenants to choose between sleeping outside in tents or sneaking back inside their damaged units.
No power meant thousands of refrigerators were filled with food that was spoiling. No power forced some people to survive for days on peanut butter sandwiches.
No refrigeration meant countless diabetics were each faced with having to replace hundreds of dollars of insulin – if they could afford the unexpected purchase, and if they could find an open pharmacy.
People reliant on oxygen, or motorized wheelchairs or battery-powered ventilators were in a perilous predicament. Spotty cell phone service made it next to impossible for people to reach relatives or to find out where they could replace medications, recharge their medical equipment or find food.
By the time the National Guard rolled into Cedar Rapids on Friday, tens of thousands of people already were dejected, already desperate and already disgusted with government.
When Terry Branstad was governor, he knew on the very first day, without being told, that providing drinking water for 300,000 people and getting the Des Moines Water Works back in operation required help from the National Guard.
Branstad knew the public expected government action – not government inaction.