One perk of being president of the National Association of Counties (NACO) is that you can bring the organization’s annual conference to your city.
Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston, whose one-year term as NACO president ends next July, has done just that, and she has titled this year’s conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton at the U.S. Cellular Center, "Resilient Counties."
The theme, she said Thursday, is fitting for a conference in Cedar Rapids and Linn County where the community has gotten back on its feet and is moving ahead in the wake of its historic flood disaster of 2008.
"This is really looking at the experience we had here locally and asking, ‘What do counties need to do to enhance and build their resilience so that when a disaster comes through and changes the face of your community, you are prepared to take that on?’" she said. "And that requires you to think about it ahead of time."
About 150 NACO members are attending the two-day conference Thursday and Friday.
The jolt of cold weather in Cedar Rapids has tested some members’ resilience, Langston joked.
Featured speakers include Ken Burris, former chief operating officer of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and David Miller, former administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division and now an associate administrator at FEMA.
Before the conference’s opening Thursday afternoon, Langston looked back to 2008 and said the city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County "did reasonably well" in working together to respond to their 2008 flood. The two jurisdictions and others drill four times a year for disasters because of the nuclear energy plant at Palo, and that helped, she said.
Even so, the city and county realized they had not been communicating that well when it appeared in the spring of 2013 that another significant flood would hit. As the river level rose, city officials announced that the city plan was to evacuate all buildings downtown when the river reached 22 feet, which was news to Linn County and to occupants of county buildings, including the jail, along the river.
"So that was a learning moment," Langston said.
On Sunday and Monday, two Linn County officials, Darrin Gage, director of policy and administration, and Garth Fagerbakke, director of facilities, will join three Cedar Rapids officials, Mayor Ron Corbett, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Dave Elgin, director of public works, on a trip to Nashville, Tenn., to see a demonstration of removable flood walls outside the Grand Ole Opry, which was flooded in 2010.
Langston said the joint trip is an example of how jurisdictions can start to talk and collaborate sooner rather than later as the community now is moving ahead — the city of Cedar Rapids secured a $264 million award from the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board on Wednesday to help fund 46 percent of project costs — to build a flood protection system, Langston said.
Among pieces of the system likely will be protection of May’s Island in the Cedar River, where the county’s court house and jail and the city’s Veterans Memorial Building sit."We want to be a partner in the development of the broad community," Langston said of Linn County leaders. "… Resilience comes based on relationships and the partnerships you build so you’re responsive when challenging things happen."