August 17, 2020 – This past week has been particularly trying for Benton County citizens, government and emergency responders. The devastating Derecho Windstorm left 90% of Benton County without power and at least 90% of the county’s residents with wind damage ranging from minor to severe. Benton County Emergency Management Coordinator Scott Hansen stated this has been the most difficult disaster incident in his career to coordinate due to the severe impact to ten communities, the widespread damage to rural areas and the long term lack of communications capabilities caused by infrastructure damage from the storm. Also, due to COVID-19 the normal response and assistance the county is used to receiving from non-governmental agencies has been hampered.
This was a fast moving storm. The National Weather Service had warnings out in plenty of time. Benton County’s fire department and law enforcement weather spotters were out 30 minutes ahead of the storm and did a great job in very dangerous conditions of reporting the wind speed and damage. Coordinator Hansen also activated the community and DAEC warning sirens well ahead of the storms and re-activated some sirens more than once to convey the ongoing weather threat.
Immediately following the storm communications to and from the Benton County Emergency Operation Center (EOC) were severely hampered because the county’s radio system was not functioning in some areas and had sporadic coverage in other areas. The EOC phone system was also out of service for 45 minutes and there was no, or very limited, cell phone service for at least 48 hours. Nearly the entire county and all cities were initially without power.
Disaster recovery efforts began immediately but continued to be hampered by lack of cell phone, landline and radio communications capabilities. These problems continued for the rest of the week.
Tuesday morning, in response to the disaster, Benton Supervisors declared a county-wide disaster declaration and Coordinator Hansen activated the State of Iowa Individual Assistance Program to begin the process of helping the county’s lower income citizens. Other recovery actions taken on Monday and Tuesday included:
• The City of Vinton restored electrical power by generating from the city’s generation plant
• Electrical power was restored to part of Urbana
• The American Red Cross provided lodging for 30-40 Benton County families who lost their homes in the storm
• The Salvation Army provided food for meals being made and distributed in Belle Plaine by community volunteers and also provided mobile feeding around the county
• Benton County Emergency Management Commission Chairman Steve Meyer traveled the county and conducted an initial damage assessment
By mid-week Benton County Emergency Management (EMA) was able to establish a way to communicate with most of the county’s cities on a regular basis. The Salvation Army continued to provide food for Belle Plaine community volunteers to feed 500 lunches. The Presbyterian church in Vinton had volunteers prepare 1000 more lunches from food purchased by the Salvation Army and then distributed the food to other impacted communities in the county. Cities began tree debris removal and Benton County EMA secured State of Iowa DOT resources to assist with debris removal. The EMA also secured large generators for Belle Plaine and other community’s needs.
On Thursday the Benton EMA also secured assistance from Black Hawk, Buchanan, Clayton, and Delaware County Emergency Managers who conducted the formal initial damage survey necessary for the Federal disaster declaration process.
Throughout Benton County neighbors, relatives, friends, and strangers have all helped each other through the disaster recovery process, in particular with clean up. In the days and weeks ahead the Benton County EMA will explore every opportunity to provide the county and its residents with the resources they need to recover from this disaster. If any event should underscore the need for individual citizens and families to have disaster preparedness supplies on hand, this is it. This disaster has shown that government and volunteer agencies have limitations and that citizens themselves must be prepared to self- sustain after a disaster. To get you started for becoming better prepared here are three of many sources for information.
Steve Meyer, Chairperson, Benton County Emergency Management Commission