A flood recovery advisory committee will hold a special meeting today to receive a briefing on the transition plans for the Rebuild Iowa Office. RIO is scheduled to shut down this summer, three years after record flooding caused several billions of dollars worth of damage to the state. Some are happy to see the office close, while others worry valuable expertise will be lost.
From the start, legislative Republicans called RIO just another layer of bureaucracy and cried foul when the agency hired a lobbyist and spent $20,000 to replace the office’s moldy carpeting. But RIO’s Executive Director, Ron Dardis, says for all criticism, the agency has been recognized as a national model. “I have been asked to go to different states many different times and brief the framework and the structure we have in place and some of our accomplishments to other states,” Dardis said. “What we have here in Iowa is the way states recover from major disasters in the future.”
The Rebuild Iowa Office is not in the business of handing out money. Most of the $4.3 billion allocated by the state and federal government flows through other agencies. RIO’s job is to coordinate the relief efforts, act as a point of contact for the public and serve as a liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Tina Potthoff is RIO’s former communication director. “There were many federal changes that took place to dispersing federal dollars after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and that definitely had an impact on the 2008 disasters here in Iowa,” Potthoff said. “So, to have a group of people who can work through some of that red tape is very beneficial.” Potthoff recently resigned to accept a position in the private sector. She says RIO’s staff is down from 21 to 14 as the agency prepares to close at the end of June.
Republican House Speaker-elect Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha has been an outspoken critic of RIO and says nothing much will change once the office is closed. “I guess they’ve done somewhat of a decent job of communicating. At least I know they send out a lot of press releases,” Paulsen said. “From my perspective, coming from that part of the state, I’m going to need to have someone explain to me why that’s a good use of taxpayer dollars. I think we could be more efficient with our rebuilding process through other means.”
The Rebuild Iowa Office is funded largely by federal grants totaling $4.5 million over three years. The state has kicked in an additional $850,000. But the Flood Recovery Director for Cedar Rapids says RIO’s lobbying work in Washington has secured more than ten times that amount. Greg Eyerly says that kind of work must continue even after the agency folds. “The cost of not recovering more quickly is pretty high and being able to advocate for additional monies, for example the $85 million that was given to the state of Iowa for business recovery from HUD,” Eyerly said. “You know, RIO played a critical role in helping us articulate our argument and why we needed that program. And that’s the first of its kind in disaster recovery.”
Eyerly says it took more than ten years after the floods of 1993 to receive the final payment from FEMA. And he’s quick to point out the flood of 2008 caused six times as much damage. RIO executives say that’s why the state should establish a permanent Office of Disaster Recovery Coordination. The staff would start small and scale up if there’s another disaster.
Democratic Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids says the state should be prepared. “We’ve been hammered pretty hard as a state and we’ve got to learn that lesson and I think assigning some people with that task is a really good idea. This is one model that’s out there, I think we have to take a look at it, but the key lesson is the job’s not done,” Hogg said.