It seemed an impossible situation. Firefighters, trained to serve and protect the Cedar Rapids community, found themselves dispersed in four boats early June 12, 2008, with rain pounding and calls for help pouring in.
Residents trapped inside fast-flooding homes gave addresses to emergency dispatchers. But with street signs already under water, finding them proved challenging. Firefighters maneuvering the avenues by memory crashed into tree branches, and lightning threatened to make an already treacherous situation lethal.
Firefighter Justin Jensen, who manned one of the department's boats that night, said the rain and lightning seemed to add insult to injury.
“When you are sleep deprived and you are hitting fences and cars … it's so frustrating,” he said. “It's like, 'What else could go wrong?'”
The firefighters themselves had been displaced earlier in the day, and crews had to relocate from the Central Fire Station to Fire Station 5, where cots lined the floor for firefighters trying to steal some rest between rescues.
Before it was clear the river would reach epic flood levels, firefighters went door to door with the warning that “this is going to be bigger than we think,” Jensen said. Voluntary evacuations soon become mandatory, but Jensen said some were left behind – mostly individuals with special needs.
“And then we got call after call after call for a while,” he said.
'It was panic'
At one point during the height of its rescues, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department was receiving 15 addresses at a time for residents needing help.
Maneuvering by boat also forced firefighters to battle the river's current, and Jensen said that on several occasions, crews had to pull individuals out of the river who had tried to escape on their own.
“We plucked a couple out of a child's playhouse in a backyard,” he said. “We were finding people standing on top of vehicles and on the on and off ramps near downtown.”
Boat rescues that began Wednesday evening didn't taper off until Friday, according to Greg Smith, assistant chief. During that time, numerous outside agencies contributed boats to the Cedar Rapids fleet – the Iowa Department of Natural Resources gave three and agencies including Mount Vernon, Hiawatha, Ely, and Lisbon also pitched in, Smith said.
“Even citizens were coming down with their fishing boats to help out,” he said.
Firefighter Jeremy Wagner said the department couldn't have kept up without the additional resources and manpower.
“It was incredible,” he said. “Our four boats would have been in trouble without them.”
Some of the individuals needing to be rescued didn't want to leave and, on occasion, wouldn't. Firefighters wouldn't force them out but eventually would find themselves back at the same addresses – this time at the residents' request.
After firefighters plucked individuals from their homes, they would take them to a drop site and a separate set of workers would relocate them from there. Some of the families not only were forced to say goodbye to their homes, but they had to leave loved ones in the rush of the rescues.
For a while, Wagner said, “It was panic.” And firefighters said they felt for the families and the “uncertainty of it all.” But, in the end, everyone who needed to get out did. And no one was lost.
“There were no flood-related deaths,” Wagner said. “And there was no way we could have handled that by ourselves. The people of Cedar Rapids did awesome.”
'Looked like Armageddon'
Once the flood waters subsided, firefighters began a different sort of rescue. They spent days going through flooded homes looking for pets and individuals who remained missing – who weren't accounted for by family members.
Firefighters, over a span of five to seven days, checked about 6,000 structures.
“I couldn't believe the mess,” Wagner said. “Five years later, I'm surprised we are where we are today. It looked like Armageddon.”
As they walked through devastated homes and traipsed through filthy flood water, they faced a different type of danger – molds, sewer water and fumes. Jensen said crews stayed healthy by updating Tetanus and Hepatitis A vaccinations and by wearing masks.
After days spent checking blocks and blocks of devastation, firefighter Jensen said crews disposed of their contaminated gear entirely.
“We got rid of it all,” he said.
Smith said the 2008 flood provided the ultimate scenario training for flood rescues, and the department since has purchased new boats with bigger motors. Five years later, however, the department still is in a temporary space.
“But we are not far from getting out of our temporary quarters,” he said. “We're all chomping at the bit.”
The new Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station is scheduled for completion in September at 713 First Ave. SE, with a public grand opening in October. It will provide living and training space for firefighters, as well as plenty of room for equipment and apparatus.
The temporary space has sufficed but lacks many features common in traditional fire stations.
Wagner said the 2008 flood always will remain a significant part of the department's history. But, right now in the temporary location, it still seems ever present.
“Every time we come to work, we're reminded of the flood,” he said.