Tornado’s aftermath biggest challenge for city administrator

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BARSKE - As the city administrator, Jessica Kinser reports to the city council and has several city departments that report to her.

Like many Marshalltownians who emerged from shelter minutes after the July 19 tornado lifted off, City Administrator Jessica Kinser was stunned to see a truly ugly sight of uprooted trees, downed power lines and crushed vehicles.

She and fellow city hall employees saw how the tornado’s EF-3 vicious winds hammered the nearby Anytime Fitness Building on North Center Street. The Golden Land Asian Grocery across the street from City Hall was smashed into rubble. The venerable Veterans Memorial Coliseum (VMC) was minus its roof and a large sprinkler was gushing water.

In an interview with the Times-Republican Wednesday, Kinser said the tornado and its aftermath have posed the biggest challenge in her two-plus years in Marshalltown and in her professional career.

“After seeing the destruction downtown, I switched gears to wondering if city employees and residents were safe and not injured,” she said.

None were, so Kinser, department heads and employees rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BARSKE - Marshalltown City Administrator Jessica Kinser started on the job in November 2016. She said her time in the city has now been split in two eras — before and after the July 19, 2018 tornado.

And, like many of their friends and neighbor in the northwest and northeast quadrants – the areas hardest hit – they are still working on post-tornado duties as the six-month anniversary approaches.

Part of the ongoing effort involves compliance with Federal Emergency Management Administration protocol.

“We were told by other communities who had experienced disasters to make sure we followed a FEMA protocol in documenting city expenses applied to tornado clean-up and repairs,” she said. “I think we have done a good job of doing that, and are hopeful FEMA will honor all, if not a significant majority of claims.”

FEMA funds for tornado-related expenses have been reserved for city and Marshall County for clean-up costs and repairs to city- and county-owned buildings and property.

Kinser said she and fellow city employees have been dealing with a “new normal” of understanding certain projects had to be slowed down or put on the back burner as clean-up efforts were top priority.

“We also realized that certain projects or protocols do not slow down just because disaster strikes,” she said. “For example we have worked to keep the city financially viable.”

Kinser and other city officials have, like their friends and neighbors impacted by the tornado, worked to find positives from July 19.

One is a a new downtown development plan currently underway by a St. Paul, Minn.-based consulting firm.

It is funded by a $100,000 grant from the local Martha Ellen Tye Foundation and a $100,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration.

A second is the VMC. A significant remodeling project had been proposed before the tornado.

Insurance money and other resources will be applied in an effort to make the iconic building more accessible to residents, especially seniors.

“I drive into work on Main Street and State Street,” she said. “And I have noticed in the last two or three weeks when we had unusually mild temperatures how much repair work homeowners and property owners had gotten done. I am saddened about the number of trees we lost.”

An avid reader, Kinser said she finds good books to be a great remedy in dealing with stress and everyday challenges of her job.

Another is her house and neighborhood.

“I love my house and my neighborhood,” she said.