CEDAR RAPIDS — With 20-20 hindsight, former Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston said, the 2008 flood proved the adage of “you don’t ever waste a crisis or a disaster.”
Ten Linn County public buildings were damaged — two were razed — in the flood, and more than $60 million would be spent in the succeeding five years on flood recovery and mitigation.
“At first, you’re so caught up in the awfulness, you can’t see anything but the crisis,” Langston said. “But increasingly after that, we tried to leverage the ‘opportunity’ of the flood. And about three years out, we began to realize that this opportunity was really going to happen, and it was going to be pretty awesome.”
Langston, who now works for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C., said it’s a lesson that more cities and counties are “sadly” learning as the number of natural disasters around the nation multiply.
“There was much learning,” she said of the 2008 flood. “The status quo became unmoored, the lines were cut on the anchored boat. We had that window of time, of freedom, when the community was tolerant of doing things differently, which allowed for a new vision.”
In addition, Linn County counted flood damage to 86 farms and least 600 rural homes and cabins along the Cedar River.
The county moved its administrative offices to Westdale Mall after the flood and spent four years redesigning and renovating the flood-damaged county services building at 935 Second St. SW.
In the redesign, the building’s electrical and mechanical systems were moved out of the basement to the third floor. The Information Technology Department, with its computers, and the Recorder’s Office, with its paper records, also moved upstairs.
The treasurer’s office was moved from the second to the first floor in recognition that nearly 75 percent of the building’s visitors head to that office to buy license plates or pay property taxes.
The building reopened July 31, 2012, with a new name — the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, in honor of a longtime county supervisor.
More than half of the $14.8 million renovation was covered by the state and the I-JOBS program, with another $4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It cost about $8.5 million to renovate the 1925 Linn County Courthouse on the Third Avenue Bridge. FEMA paid $6 million of that cost, with Linn County issuing recovery bonds to cover the rest. In addition, more than $5 million was spent restoring flood-damaged court files.
The upper levels of the courthouse reopened four months after the flood, but it would take until 2013 to complete the renovation and mitigation in the rest of the building and to return county offices and courtrooms there.
Mechanical and electrical systems were moved upstairs in the building on May’s Island. Eight courtrooms were added. A terrazzo tile at the entrance, made with pieces of the old flooring, pays tribute to the “Linn County citizens whose lives were changed forever by the flood of 2008.”
The county-owned Options of Linn County building at 1019 Seventh St. SE was damaged beyond repair and razed. A new county public health building is to be built there this year.
The Options program — which provides job opportunities for adults with disabilities — moved in 2011 to the new $16.3 million Community Services Building at 1240 26th Ave. Court SW.
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office reopened in January 2010 at 320 Second Ave. SW, three blocks from the river. Its $2.8 million renovation included flood mitigation, with the cost covered by FEMA and the state.
One of the more dramatic moments in the flood came June 12 when city buses plowed through hubcap-deep floodwaters along Third Avenue SE to evacuate inmates from the Linn County Jail on May’s Island. Inmates and staff made it out safely, but the damaged jail would not be reopened until May 2009.
The jail’s $7.6 million renovation — paid for with FEMA and Linn County recovery bonds — included moving mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as the jail’s laundry, to an upper level. The jail’s kitchen — designed for 135 inmates in 1984 — was expanded, given that it was now feeding around 400 inmates every day.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, while acknowledging the flood’s damage, said he was pleased the county and cities managed the flood with no injuries or deaths and that order was maintained.
“I am also very pleased with the efforts of local first responders, assisted by several outside entities, ensured residents were safely evacuated, their property safeguarded and the ensuing cleanup was completed in an orderly and timely fashion,” he said.
“It was a cooperative effort from everyone at all levels of county government,” he said. “From my perspective as sheriff, I certainly appreciated the fact that much importance was placed on restoring and reoccupying the county jail and courthouse.”