This was a big one

County officials review the road ahead after derecho hits Benton County

By Jim Magdefrau

Benton County officials are busy laying the groundwork for a disaster recovery. The Benton County’s Board of Supervisors had a briefing with Scott Hansen, Emergency Management Director, on Tuesday, Aug. 18, at the courthouse in Vinton.

County officials met to review how the derecho impacted Benton County

Hansen gave background on the weather event that hit Benton County, along with 21 other Iowa counties, occurring on Monday, Aug. 10.

“Boy, do you have a lot of signs to put up,” Hansen told Engineer Myron Parizek as he walked into the meeting room. “Holy cow!” High speed winds bent over and damaged many of the county’s traffic signs.

It’s not just signs, as Hansen gave an overview of damage. He said that initially after the storm, all communications were off. Most of the microwaves turned east, so the county could barely page or talk with emergency officials. There were phone system issues and cell phones were non-existent. Eventually calls came through.

“The ongoing lack of internet was the biggest hinderance to me and our agency the first week,” Hansen said. That is their main means of communication and getting information out the cities. It improved and they found other ways to get communication across.

The state disaster declaration came in right away, so they could get resources in for the cities. The Department of Transportation cleaned up a lot of debris and generators were brought in to power up critical assets in the communities. He said that makes a critical difference.

By the end of the week, some communities had partial electricity back, as well as some rural areas. As of the meeting, that process was ongoing.

Hansen explained Alliant Energy is bypassing transmission lines and energizing substations, so communities can get power. Rebuilding of the transmission lines could be weeks or months. “It’s not just one or two poles here or there. It’s lines,” he said. “They’re doing a great job doing that,” Hansen said of Alliant.

Hansen compared this to past disasters. He says he’s learned a lot of lessons for improvement to be used for future events. “Two big differences between this wind storm and the 2011 wind storm – the scope of the path is a lot wider. There’s 10 communities in Benton County impacted, instead of four. And we didn’t lose our normal communications in 2011 like we did with this one.”

One more big difference is that Covid-19 has changed the response from organizations that they were used to relying on.

“We’re doing great,” Hansen stressed. Even with the lack of formal communication, there were enough people in the cities who knew what to do. They ramped up, took care of their citizens and removed debris. They cleared paths for emergency vehicles. Secondary roads did the same thing for rural roads. Barricades were set up for downed power lines. “Everybody did a great job. They knew what to do even without formal communication or central coordination. Communities took it upon themselves to feed their own citizens.”

Going forward, Hansen explained public assistance and the process involved for damage assessment. This involves tree removal, roads and bridges, public buildings and contents, and the non-insured costs involved in this.

“The good news is for Benton County and all of its cities is public assistance is open in all categories,” Hansen said. “It’s now a matter of doing the formal damage assessment process.” This will be building by building and city by city. He pointed out rules change with assistance after every event. Damage assistance is the key, as well how much insurance covers this. The assistance is designed to take care of the gap. He stressed citizens have to contact their insurance companies.

Duane Arnold

Benton County is next to the Duane Arnold Energy Center, Palo. They are starting the formal process of decommissioning the center now. Winds measured at 112 miles per hour damaged the cooling towers at the facility. “They’re done. They’re never going to operate ever again,” said Hansen. No one will ceremonially turn off the switch as they had planned three months from now. “Mother Nature took care of that for them,” Hansen explained.

Work ahead

“Just like 2011, we’re going to recover from this. The landscape is going to look a little different. But we’re going to get back on our feet and continue to do business in this county.”

Scott Hansen, Benton County Emergency Management Director.

“Everyone did a fantastic job,” Hansen said of county and city employees and responders.

“Just like 2011, we’re going to recover from this. The landscape is going to look a little different. But we’re going to get back on our feet and continue to do business in this county.”

He concluded, “This was a big one.”

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