On August 10 th , a storm the United States National Weather Service described as unprecedented hit east central Iowa (Kopelman, 2020). The storm, known as a “derecho,” contained wind gusts of 140 mph. While storms with high winds are not unusual, in this storm the wind gusts were sustained for over an hour, causing extensive damage.
Over 10 million acres of farmland was destroyed. Between agricultural and other property, initial damage estimates are over $4 billion. Over 300,000 people lost electricity, and some were still without power over a week after the storm. Trying to survive in the summer heat and humidity was further exacerbated by challenges from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Miraculously, only three deaths were reported.
Predictably, with the United States just over two months away from a national election, criticism or defense of the storm response quickly fell along political lines. Putting politics aside, some lessons can be gleaned from the response efforts at state and local levels.
Effective communication is critical
During a crisis, communication consists of the transfer of complex information under pressure between multiple stakeholders (government officials to the public or between organizations, as examples). The most important function of crisis management is to manage information exchange (Rubens, 2020).
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds did not submit a formal request for federal assistance until August 16th , six days after the storm (Gowen & Sellers, 2020). According to officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a damage assessment is part of the submission process. A challenging task in the best of circumstances, after the derecho it was complicated by local officials’ difficulty in getting out to physically assess damage, as well as limited personnel available due to COVID-19 (Gowen & Sellers, 2020).
If the impression is given that an organization is not in control of the situation then it will soon become defensive about its own actions. The focus will then not be on responding to the crisis but defending leadership’s decisions. At that point it is all but impossible to recover the initiative (Rubens, 2020).
Neither Governor Reynolds nor anyone from her staff shared information explaining the request process with the public. It was only after criticism for the delay that more information was provided.
In a crisis, people expect official communications to be transparent; consistent; timely; actually answer pressing questions for the public; and show that the organization is holding itself accountable (Agnes, 2018). Consistent and informative communication from Governor Reynolds might not have satisfied everyone, but it would at least let them understand what was being done and when.
Leadership must understand the nature of crises
Brad Hart is the mayor of Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa and the epicenter for most of the damage from the storm. On August 13 th , three days after the storm, Hart was asked why he had not requested Governor Reynolds to deploy the Iowa National Guard to Cedar Rapids (in the United States, the National Guard is controlled at the state level and is often a key first responder during natural disasters). He replied that the city was using state Department of Transportation workers and contractors to respond to the crisis. He didn’t see what additional assistance the National Guard could provide (Payne, 2020). He later said his comments were misunderstood (Gowen & Sellers, 2020). When the National Guard was finally dispatched, they removed over 2 million pounds of debris in three days.
The two responsibilities for leaders in a crisis are 1) look after the safety, security, and wellbeing of your people, and 2) manage deployment of resources when and to where they need to be (Rubens, 2020).
Tough decisions have to be made quickly. Some reasonable, decisive action is almost always better than no action at all (Augustine, 1995). A closed attitude, an attitude that says, “I already know,” may cause us to miss important information. We plan, but we must be able to let go of the plan, too (Gonzales, 2017).
The derecho hit quickly, with little warning. Mayor Hart, never having been through this type of crisis, may have been unfamiliar with what resources were available at the state level. But crises, by their very nature, are complex. The fact that they are complex can never be allowed to be used as an excuse for failure or inaction (Rubens, 2020).
In crisis management, resourcefulness is a necessity. Leaders and organizations must have the ability to develop innovative solutions. Adaptation is important.
On April 25, 2015, an earthquake struck Nepal, killing over 9,000 people. The government of Nepal found itself unable to physically assess damaged areas due to debris blocking access routes. Several government agencies, aid organizations, and private citizens used unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to provide damage assessment, to include 3-D maps (Sharma, 2016). The use of drones was not in any crisis playbook; it was an innovative solution from people who adapted to the situation.
As with all post-crisis assessments, key questions for the general public are have lessons been learned, and – more importantly – will they be applied in the future? Unprecedented weather events, unfamiliarity with resources, and complicated aid request processes notwithstanding, it has been wisely said that the world is not interested in the storms you encountered. It only cares whether you brought the ship in safely (Augustine, 1995).