Trump’s federal disaster declaration for Iowa made a week after destructive derecho

After the Aug. 10 derecho swept through Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds claimed the disaster proclaimation came quickly. A check of the facts finds it to be Mostly True.

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Lyle Muller, PolitiFact Iowa Editor


PolitiFact Iowa is a project of The Daily Iowan’s Ethics & Politics Initiative and PolitiFact to help you find the truth in politics.


Edited by Sarah Watson

If your time is short:

  • A derecho ripping through the Midwest United States Aug. 10 caused widespread damage, especially in Iowa.
  • Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds told the Republican National Convention Aug. 25 that President Trump quickly issued a federal major disaster declaration for the state.
  • The declaration was issued a week after the storm, in less time than the average for Iowa disasters since 2008 but not sooner than after one of Iowa’s worst tornadoes.

Aug. 10, 2020, entered the history books for many Midwest residents when a derecho bearing winds clocked as high as 140 mph ripped across more than 700 miles in several states. It started early in the morning on the edges of South Dakota and Nebraska and gained massive power in Iowa before ripping through northern and central Illinois, including the Chicago area, but also southern Wisconsin and parts of Indiana, southern Michigan and northwest Ohio.

Iowa was hit particularly hard and the state’s governor, Kim Reynolds, used her opportunity speaking to the Republican Party national convention the night of Tuesday, Aug. 25, to let people know about it.

“With the help of the Trump Administration, we quickly received a major disaster declaration that will help Iowans get back on their feet,” Reynolds said in recorded remarks for use at the virtual convention. “The president, he cut through the bureaucracy to do what needed to be done, and to do it quickly.”

Look at certain factors and you see what reasonably could be called a quick response by Trump’s administration to Iowa’s requests for help. Those factors include the average time it usually takes to get a presidential disaster declaration after an incident in Iowa and when the president or members of his administration responded to Reynolds’ requests for federal assistance.

Critics, including people dealing with more than two weeks of storm recovery, pounced on social media after Reynolds’ comments at the convention. “She conveniently failed to mention that he’s only approved individual assistance for 1 of the 27 counties and now she says it’s unlikely all the others will be approved,” one Twitter commenter responded on the Des Moines Register’s tweet of its story about the appearance. “Yes. President Trump came to Iowa…on his way to AZ for a rally…and never left the airport to actually survey the historic destruction in Cedar Rapids,” wrote another on The Daily Iowan’s Twitter post of its story. 

Damage from the Aug. 10 storm was severe in several Iowa counties and cities that included Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Tama, and Grinnell but also Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, and smaller towns, destroying an estimated 14 million acres of farm crops. An estimated 585,000 Iowans were among the estimated 1.9 million Midwesterners without power that was restored over the next week and a half.

Iowans, Reynolds said in her convention speech, did what was expected of them after the storm, helping each other and rebuilding their communities.

“But someone else had our back. Our president,” Reynolds said. “When the winds had finished raging and the cleanup had only begun, he showed up. 

“Now, you might not know that because the national media didn’t report it. But the Trump Administration was here in full force. The day after the storm, the president called to assure me that we had the full backing of the federal government. And, later that week, Vice President Pence came to Iowa to, again, assure us that the president and his administration were behind us.”

A lot of Iowans critical of Reynolds’ and the federal government’s response in the first days after the storm cited a lack of a quick federal disaster designation to free up low-interest loans and other assistance, and clean-up help from the Iowa National Guard. Cedar Rapids residents The Daily Iowan spoke to complained that Trump held only a short meeting with local officials at the city’s airport when he was in the state on Aug. 18 without touring the area.

IowaWatch.org reported that President George W. Bush has granted a disaster declaration requested by then-Gov. Chet Culver within 24 hours after an EF-5 tornado that destroyed much of the northeast Iowa town of Parkersburg in 2008, hit other parts of Black Hawk and Butler counties, and killed nine people. Culver, IowaWatch reported, applied under a federal provision for waivers for catastrophic events. 

But Reynolds’ spokesperson, Pat Garrett, told PolitiFact that the governor’s office was on the phone with state and local officials from day one, swapping information needed to seek federal help, and with federal officials the next day. “It was almost, basically, daily conversation,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Disaster Agency (FEMA) has a list of requirements states must follow within 30 days of an event to seek federal disaster status. Waivers exist under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 for quicker responses when deemed necessary.

The Des Moines Register reported that it took an average of 24 days from when a disaster started for Iowa to request a presidential declaration in 26 declared disasters since 2008, not counting the derecho. The newspaper also reported that it took, on average, another 15 days after the request was filed for it to be granted.

A timeline Garrett provided PolitiFact outlined what the governor’s office did from Aug. 10 through Aug. 24 to respond to the storm. It showed her speaking on Aug. 10 with the state Emergency Operations Center that had been activated to deal with COVID-19 to monitor the storm. Also that day, Reynolds issued a State Disaster Emergency Proclamation for Boone, Clinton, Dallas, Johnson, Marshall, and Story counties after requests from those counties, the timeline showed.

The next day, she issued proclamations for Benton, Cedar, Clarke, Greene, Hardin, Iowa, Jasper, Linn, Muscatine, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Tama, and Washington counties after receiving their requests, the timeline showed. Iowa’s Homeland Security & Emergency Management Office started that day to gather information needed for a FEMA application for federal help while Reynolds toured damage in Tama and Linn counties and viewed farmland damage, the timeline showed.

Reynolds spoke to Trump on the phone the first time about storm damage on Aug. 11, the timeline showed. Trump sent a tweet about the derecho that evening. 

Vice President Mike Pence visited Des Moines on a campaign trip on Thursday, Aug. 13, and spoke about giving federal support for Iowa’s farmers who took damage in the storm. He did not tour storm damage but spoke to some farmers who had sustained damage. Reynolds spoke with Trump that day, too, her timeline shows. The Iowa National Guard arrived in Cedar Rapids Friday, Aug. 14, to help remove debris, the Guard reported in a news release, and the governor’s timeline showed more state disaster declarations and damage tours in the days leading up to then and more tours afterward. 

Reynolds submitted on Sunday, Aug. 16, an emergency application for a presidential major disaster declaration and spoke with Small Business Administration leader Jovita Carranza on Monday, Aug. 17, the timeline showed. Trump approved the major declaration that day for “the state, eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe storm in Benton, Boone, Cedar, Clinton, Dallas, Jasper, Johnson, Jones, Linn, Marshall, Muscatine, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Story and Tama counties.” 

Trump tweeted that afternoon, “Just approved (and fast) the FULL Emergency Declaration for the Great State of Iowa. They got hit hard by record setting winds. Thank you to @SenJoniErnst, @ChuckGrassley, and Governor Kim Reynolds.” He had freed up, however, only a fraction of what Reynolds sought in aid, approving $45 million.

But Reynolds had requested $82.7 million for more than 8,000 homes, $3.7 billion for damage to cropland and farm buildings, and $100 million to repair private utilities but that funding was not approved. FEMA announced additional assistance for Linn County individuals on Aug. 20 but not for individuals in any of the other affected counties. 

Trump flew to Cedar Rapids, on Tuesday, Aug. 18, on the way to an Arizona campaign trip and met with selected local government officials, Reynolds and other Republicans, Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, and Republican 1st Congressional District candidate Ashley Hinson. 

As of the morning of Aug. 26, FEMA had approved $1.5 million in aid, including $756,378 for individual assistance, for 243 applicants. Only Linn County, Iowa, had been designated for individual assistance for homeowners and renters. Reynolds, meanwhile, said she would make $100 million in federal coronavirus aid available for farmers hit by the storm.

Our ruling

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has come under fire from critics about her response to a devastating derecho in Iowa on Aug. 10 and raised their ire when thanking President Trump in a predictably political setting, the Republican National Convention, for a quick response to the storm. It’s true that a former Iowa governor and former U.S. president reacted more quickly to a deadly Iowa tornado in 2008. Also true is that three-and-a-half days passed before the Iowa National Guard arrived in Cedar Rapids, but that was Reynolds’ call, not Trump’s. 

Both Reynolds and Trump acted more quickly than Iowa’s average response time since 2008 for applying for and obtaining a presidential major disaster declaration, Iowa news media reporting shows. “Quickly” is a relative term. Plus, Trump has not granted Reynolds’ full request or toured damage and that figures into our ruling. But, his response for a federal disaster declaration came within a day of being requested so we rate Reynolds’ statement that he responded quickly as being Mostly True.


Sources

Live coverage on the Republican National Convention website, 2020gopconvention.com, Aug. 25, 2020.

Phone conversation with and email from Pat Garrett, spokesperson for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Aug. 26, 2020.

Des Moines Register Twitter post and responses, Aug. 26, 2020.

The Daily Iowan Twitter post and responses, Aug. 26, 2020.

“Midwest Derecho – August 10, 2020, Updated 8/20/20 11 a.m.; National Weather Service; Aug. 20. 2020.

“Report: National Guard deploying to Cedar Rapids for storm damage,” KCRG.com, Aug. 13, 2020.

“National Guard help coming to Cedar Rapids after devastating storm,” by Marissa Payne, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Aug. 13, 2020.

“Derecho-devastated Iowans wonder when more help will come: ‘This is beyond us’”; by Andy Kopsa; IowaWatch.org; Aug. 16, 2020.

Federal Emergency Management Agency updates, FEMA.gov.

“President Donald J. Trump Approves Major Disaster Declaration for Iowa,” Federal Emergency Management Agency news release, Aug. 17, 2020.

“Mayors press Trump to act on aid for homeowners,” by James Lynch, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Aug. 18, 2020.

“Trump does not tour derecho damage or meet with affected Iowans during Cedar Rapids visit,” by Caleb McCullough, The Daily Iowan, Aug. 18, 2020.

How does the timing of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ disaster declaration compare to past requests for federal aid?, by Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register, Aug. 19, 2020.

“President Donald J. Trump Amends Iowa Declaration,” Federal Emergency Management Agency news release, Aug. 20, 2020.

“Speaking at RNC, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says Trump had Iowans’ backs during derecho recovery,” by Nick Coltrain, Des Moines Register, Aug. 25, 2020.

“Reynolds: Iowa will make $100 million in federal coronavirus aid available to farmers,” by Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register, Aug. 25, 2020.

“How a Disaster Gets Declared,” FEMA website.

Stafford Act, as Amended, and Related Authorities, FEMA website.

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