After floodwaters soaked Eastern Iowa, volunteers weren't far behind

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Bret Loes' summer plans changed when he saw footage of Cedar Rapids' 2008 flood on national TV.

Loes, who grew up in Dubuque County, had already arranged a trip back to Iowa to visit his parents, but instead of relaxing, Loes spent the majority of his volunteer time at St. Wenceslaus, working in a dark basement with no electricity and no air, wading through warm water and sewage.

“It was hot, it was just … the smells were overpowering,” Loes, who graduated from Kirkwood Community College and Mount Mercy University, says in a phone interview from his Maryland home. “It was just misery, but people needed help. I'd do it again tomorrow if I had to.”

Countless volunteers stepped up when the floodwaters surged. They filled sandbags and helped people remove items from their homes. They provided water and food, and opened their homes as temporary shelter. When the waters receded, they stayed to help the community recover.

Some of the volunteers were organized — members of groups like the American Red Cross and AmeriCorps VISTA. Others were people of the community, from hospital nurses to high school baseball players, wanting to help their friends and neighbors. Then there were volunteers like Loes, people with no ties to anyone affected by the flood but who saw the need for help and knew they could give it.

Blake Stahlecker spent several days filling sandbags in Iowa City and Coralville with his Iowa City West High baseball team.

“It was actually pretty cool, because people from all over came to help,” says Stahlecker, who now lives in Sioux City. “The whole community has come out and supported our baseball team, so it was good to be able to give back.”

Sarah Langholz, a sophomore at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, attended an unusual birthday party that summer. Instead of playing games and eating cake, Sarah and 12 other girls made sandwiches for flood victims.

“It was a very fulfilling experience for us, and even the girl who was having the party added that this was better than having a regular party,” says Sarah, 16. “Even though we were only in fifth grade, we were still able to contribute to our community and help out in some way. We were very proud of our humble accomplishments and hoped they would benefit those who received them.”

Wayne Engle of Marion had a friend who lost his home in the flood. Eager to help him rebuild, Engle — a retired electrician — offered to rewire the friend's home. Interest in Engle's act of kindness was echoed by other retired electricians in the area, so much so that more than two dozen men banded together to rewire nearly 300 flooded homes.

The Old Fart Electricians — or O.F. Electric, depending on who you talk to — estimate they saved each homeowner about $8,000, combining their free labor with donated supplies and materials from the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the National Electrician Contractors Association and Van Meter Inc.

“I remember this one lady, when we came to her house, she asked how much our work was going to cost, and we said, 'Nothing,' ” says John Stapley of Marion. “She wasn't sure how to react. She just said, 'Bless you.' ”

In all, the Old Fart Electricians saved flood victims an estimated $2.8 million in repairs. Engle says the opportunity to give back was a way to thank the profession for providing for his family.

“From our standpoint, we saw ourselves as blessed,” he says. “Not everyone can do electrical work. We saw the opportunity to use our knowledge and to give back to the community that has provided for us for many years.”

They haven't stopped. Many of the Old Farts still meet every Monday morning for breakfast at the Edgewood Road Hy-Vee, and they continue to use their skills to help others, whether it's working with Habitat for Humanity or Aging Services Inc.

“I know a lot of people wanted to help when the flood hit,” Stapley says. “Whether you live in downtown Cedar Rapids or Marion, it's our community, too. Seeing the people rush from their homes, from their jobs, to fill sandbags or help people evacuate their houses — that shows how much everyone cares.”

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