Jul 30, 2023 3:38 PM

52 Faces: Always prepared

Posted Jul 30, 2023 3:38 PM
<b>Des Moines County Emergency Management Coordinator Gina Hardin, who recently announced her retirement, is shown in her office on July 17 in Burlington. Photo/John Lovretta</b>
Des Moines County Emergency Management Coordinator Gina Hardin, who recently announced her retirement, is shown in her office on July 17 in Burlington. Photo/John Lovretta

By William Smith

Gina Hardin sees the world differently than most. 

It’s not that she sees disaster around every corner. That kind of cynicism would be counter-productive to her role as Des Moines County’s Emergency Management Coordinator. 

Rather, Hardin sees endless opportunities to be prepared for the worst. Every distant disaster story she sees in the news is an opportunity to learn. 

“I think, okay, if this (a disaster) happened tomorrow here in Des   Moines County, what am I going to be doing? What do we need to be thinking about? What’s all involved?” Hardin said.

Hardin knows you can’t be ready for everything. But you can always be prepared.

Hardin had to adopt a different way of thinking when she started the job about 28 years ago – and it took her a while to get her head around it.

“It was a huge learning curve,” she said.

Hardin recently announced her retirement as Des Moines County Emergency Management Coordinator, though she will stay in the position through February of next year. That will give Des Moines County time to find a replacement who will get roughly three months of on-the-job training with Hardin.

That’s a relief not only for the county but Hardin herself. She knows how vital the emergency management coordinator is, and wants to ensure a smooth transition. 

She already knows the county’s first responders will roll out a warm welcome. They always do.

“Talk about Iowa nice,” she said. “Des Moines county should, really, really be proud of their first responders and their community. Because these guys and gals work so hard, and they work well together. I talked to some of my other counterparts throughout the state, and not all counties have what we do here.”

Hardin’s two adult daughters have long left the nest, and she’s a brand-new grandmother. She’d like to start getting that extra family time in now. 

She’s also a scrapbooker and a gardener. All perfect antidotes to worrying for a living.

“I’m a bit of a packrat,” she said, referring to her scrapbook of newspaper articles.

A phone call away

Hardin often jokes she knows a little about everything, without being an expert on anything. But emergency responders, inside and outside of Des Moines County, have nothing but praise for her expertise in communication.

Burlington/Yarmouth firefighter Luke Griffis called Hardin “the best emergency management coordinator in the state.”

“Gina was able to get us anything. The joke is, if you need a purple elephant, Gina will get it to you,” Griffis said.

That was evident in how quickly she assembled state-wide resources at the scene of a tragic grain silo collapse in Yarmouth that claimed the life of 23-year-old Rickey Kammerer in June 2022. Griffis said anything they needed for the actual rescue arrived as soon as Hardin called for it. 

Dangerous search

The nearly two-day search for Kammerer was not only exhausting but extremely dangerous. The rickety web of metal left by the silo collapse was always in danger of toppling.

During the 30-hour search for Kammerer on June 21 and June 22 of 2022, Yarmouth Fire Chief John Crouch and Griffis (Crouch’s son-in-law) never left the scene.

Crouch recalls getting about a half-an-hour of sleep in the back of an ambulance. 

Griffis barely got any more. Hardin managed only a few hours of sleep at home before she was back on the scene.

None of them were going to stop searching the wreckage of grain silo collapse at the Agri-Way Grain Elevator in Yarmouth – not until they found Rickey.

“We were going into this with the mindset that we weren’t going to stop until we found him, or until the scene became too unstable to be safe,” Griffis said.

It was a rescue scene unlike any the two veteran firefighters had encountered before. It was unlike anything any of the firefighters had seen. 

The urban search and rescue team out of Cedar Rapids – Iowa Task Force 1 – was on the scene within an hour of being requested. Griffis said it was a record-breaking response time for the team.

“It usually takes 2 or 3 hours. You have to request them through the emergency management agency after you’ve exhausted all your resources, and they have to go through the governor,” Griffis said, crediting part of the fast response to Hardin.

Hardin said it was simply a matter of being prepared. Hours of training, simulations, seminars, workshops — then more training. Though she’s required to get over 24 hours a training year, Hardin said she averages about 50-75.

“You have to take advantage of these classes when the state offers them. If you don’t, it might be four or five years before they come back,” Hardin said.

Chaos coordinator

Gina Hardin likes to have fun. The nameplate on her desk says, “Chaos Coordinator.”

Emergency Management was not on her mind after graduating college. Her degree was in accounting, and she put it to good use in the payroll department at Lamont and later at Wilbur Ellis. 

“I didn’t have that emergency response background that a lot of my counterparts do,” Hardin said.

A Lee County native, Hardin earned her accounting degree from Southeastern Community College.

“Accounting was my passion,” she said. “The accounting helps me with this job, the budgeting and tracking finances.”

Disaster after disaster

Hardin missed out on the Flood of 1993 by two years when she started the job in 1995 and didn’t have much mitigation clean-up to take over.

There were always the more common disasters – flash flooding and severe storms, which were predicted with more effectiveness as Hardin and her office built-up the recently disbanded SKYWARN weather spotter team.

“I hope the next emergency coordinator can get that going again,” Hardin said. 

Hardin is as much a public figure as any head of a public emergency agency, often seen heading up the CERT (Certified Emergency Response Team) at events like the Snake Alley Criterium.

The Flood of 2008 was by far the worst disaster of Hardin’s career. The stress of years of mitigation work and FEMA paperwork was compounded by the emotional toll of seeing people losing everything they had.

“I don’t like to think about it a lot,” Hardin said.

She does like thinking about the flood prevention efforts that followed, resulting in a completed flood wall that has proven itself again against the constantly swelling river.

Hardin couldn’t think of a better exit. She’s going to miss the job, though. She has a drawer full of outdated ID badges she can’t part with. She still volunteers for the Denmark Fire Department as secretary. And she still plans on being a big part of the community.

“I’m going to miss the people. They’re great,” she said.