After this flood, FEMA earns praise
Federal, state, and local agencies responded quickly, say many Midwest residents.
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"The emergency management teams were excellent," she says. "They did everything in their power to keep people safe."Skip to next paragraph
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A big part of the improvement from the 1993 Midwest floods, in which many more people were caught off guard, has to do with improved technology and enhanced emergency management centers, say officials.
"People were still putting stuff up on a chalkboard in '93," says Bret Voorhees, a spokesperson for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Iowa, like other states, took advantage of federal funds to beef up its emergency response center. These days, it occupies a large building with 70 computer-equipped workstations.
"Having a place that's big enough, and having trained repeatedly since '93 – all that aided our response dramatically," says Mr. Voorhees.
The Army Corps of Engineers helped get much of the information out about threatened levees, regularly updating their website. As soon as it looked as if flooding was a possibility, the Corps notified commercial tows so they could get out of the Mississippi River system and not be stranded when the locks were shut down, says Ron Fournier, a spokesperson for the Corps's Rock Island District.
They also worked with Des Moines and Iowa City, both located near reservoirs, holding back on their scheduled water releases as long as possible to allow the cities to protect schools, water treatment plants, and other key facilities.
And in many ways, the fairly smooth response was aided by a public who had been through similar floods just 15 years earlier. "They understood how to evacuate better," says Mr. Fournier. "After '93, people realized what could happen."
Jury still out on recovery
Some of the quick response was able to save towns. In Cedar Falls, Iowa, sandbags were dispatched and volunteers worked around the clock to raise levees; the town was largely spared.
In the case of Cedar Rapids, the Iowa River rose dramatically higher than expected, augmented by five inches of rain on the day of the flood, and little could be done. Some 25,000 people were evacuated – in many cases they were notified by a reverse 911 system the city had in place – and emergency shelters were set up.
In some ways, comparisons to Katrina are inapt, say experts. The magnitude of that event was so much greater, occurring in a far larger city than any of the towns affected in the recent floods and an area of the country that may have had less government capability than the Midwest.
But it's still one of the first major post-Katrina disasters in which FEMA has been able to redeem itself – though some point out that the much longer recovery phase, which FEMA has a larger role in than the immediate evacuation, is only beginning.
Frustrations are likely to grow as people get impatient for housing and for answers about compensation or buyouts. And local officials say navigating the many different agencies can be confusing.
"You saw a response that was much better [than in '93], and an immediate recovery phase that was improved," says Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "Now we're into long-term recovery and mitigation, and that jury is still out."