Cedar Rapids' flood-recovery chief departs as flood protection takes center stage

Joe O’Hern leaves flood-recovery effort for retirement

Rick Smith
Published: February 18 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:47 am in

CEDAR RAPIDS — Mayors and city managers stand on the shoulders of people like Joe O’Hern.

O’Hern slipped out of City Hall last Friday and into retirement, three years after he arrived from a long career in state and federal government to take over the role as the city’s flood-recovery director.

"It’s not like Joe is a household name in Cedar Rapids," Mayor Ron Corbett said on Monday. "But the impact he’s had on our community … he’s put us in great shape through this flood recovery and as we move forward, building off the recovery."

O’Hern’s leaving is a line crossed — the city’s focus has shifted to flood protection. Flood recovery is winding down.

O’Hern, 65, arrived in Cedar Rapids from the Des Moines metro area in March 2011, 33 months after the city’s flood disaster and at a time when he said the city had gotten much of the work of the initial flood response behind it but had much of the work of flood recovery still ahead of it.

"Some of the issues around recovery were starting to pile up," O'Hern recalled.

Since then, O’Hern has been in the city’s engine room, making the city’s case for hundreds of flood-recovery projects as the paperwork and sometimes the city’s pleas and appeals have made their way from Cedar Rapids to Des Moines to federal regional offices and to Washington, D.C.

Former City Council member Don Karr, who headed up the council’s Flood Recovery Committee through the end of 2013, said Monday that O’Hern " had a good toolbox" vital to a city that needed so much in federal and state disaster help.

"Joe understood how the federal government and how the state government worked, and he helped take us to the level we needed to go to get flood-recovery done," Karr said.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz on Monday said the city was lucky to land O’Hern.

In early 2011, Greg Eyerly, the city’s first flood-recovery director, resigned while O’Hern, who had been executive director of the Iowa Finance Authority, was out of a job after Gov. Terry Branstad took office in 2011 and put in his own state executive team.

Pomeranz, as city manager in West Des Moines, had gotten to know O’Hern when Pomeranz chaired the state I-JOBS Board, which directed state disaster funding to flood-effected cities, and O’Hern helped the board with its work.

"Whatever the issue was before the I-JOBS Board, Joe and his staff were always looking for solutions. Joe was a problem-solver," Pomeranz said.

Pomeranz, who became Cedar Rapids’s city manager in September 2010, convinced O’Hern to come to Cedar Rapids.

O’Hern said both the state of Iowa and the city of Cedar Rapids worked hard to successfully secure federal disaster dollars that the city soon after the 2008 flood never imagined it would get.

"You just can’t forget that the flood was followed by a recession, and that was an awfully tough time for a flood-impacted economy to try to recover," O’Hern said. "I think the resources that were available, and some pretty good use of those resources, made a big difference."

He rattled off some ballpark estimates:

  • $350 million to replace or rebuild city facilities and infrastructure
  • More than $120 million in direct federal assistance to individuals and families harmed by the flood
  • Another $90 million for business recovery.

In addition, federal dollars bought out some 1,300 flood-damaged properties and paid to demolish many of them. Federal and state money has provided help to renovate homes and to provide incentives to build some 600 new residential units for purchase and an additional number of multifamily rental units.

One of his prized possessions is a travel mug that promotes the city’s single-family new construction program, which is designed to replace homes lost to the flood in the city’s flood-hit core neighborhoods. He called the City Council’s decision to concentrate those house-building incentives in core neighborhoods "visionary and courageous."

O’Hern said he took over the city’s flood-recovery post in time to help the city convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide federal-disaster funds to build a new central fire station rather than to fix the flood-damaged one.

Along the way, too, he helped win an appeal for the city on a close call, in which FEMA at one point was not going to pay Cedar Rapids some $13 million in damages to its hydroelectric plant at the base of the 5-in-bridge because the plant was not operational at the time of the flood.

There have been a couple of losses, too. FEMA is not paying about $6.5 million to the city to cover costs for disposing of demolition debris in the landfill from the former Sinclair meatpacking plant. In addition, the city is likely to be stuck with the payment for some high cost flood-recovery consultant fees.

A year ago, Pomeranz added to O’Hern’s duties, asking him to focus on economic development as the city’s flood recovery continued.

In that time, too, O’Hern took on the job of writing the city’s application for state flood-protection funds in a new program conceived by Mayor Corbett and approved by state lawmakers and the governor.

Pomeranz credited O’Hern with helping to move the legislation through the state rule-making process and the deliberations of the new Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, which in December awarded Cedar Rapids $264 million in state funding over 20 years.

"The concept was approved by the Legislature, but somebody had to pick up the ball," Pomeranz said. "Joe was tremendously instrumental in taking a piece of legislation and making it work for the city."

As he was winding up his duties at City Hall last week, O’Hern said his three years of work in Cedar Rapids put him closer to the front lines than his earlier career work for the state and federal governments.

"One of the things about this position, you really are seeing things happen," he said. "And I think at an important time for the city of Cedar Rapids.

"Having success with flood recovery and playing a part in that, and putting a couple of pieces together to position the city for future success are some things I can take a lot of pride in."

Pomeranz said Cedar Rapids has moved faster on flood recovery than any city in the nation facing a similar disaster. And the city has O’Hern to thank for his help in the city’s achievement, he said.

"Sometimes there is the impression that individuals work for government just for a paycheck," Pomeranz said. "That is not true. And it’s absolutely not true for someone like Joe O’Hern.

"He never let us down, he never let the city down. He did exactly what he said he was going to do and a lot more."

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