Epic Rebirth

A river of heartache and hope

10 years later, time to remember our resilience

Cedar Rapids firefighters Jason Lopez, left, and Jeremy Wagner ride down 2nd Ave toward the Interstate 380 overpass in Cedar Rapids on the afternoon of  Friday, June 13, 2008. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids firefighters Jason Lopez, left, and Jeremy Wagner ride down 2nd Ave toward the Interstate 380 overpass in Cedar Rapids on the afternoon of Friday, June 13, 2008. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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How do you celebrate the anniversary of a disaster? You don’t. You acknowledge it.

What we can do, and what we will do this week, is celebrate the recovery of Iowa’s second-largest city and its neighboring communities from the 2008 flood.

But we face this milestone with a gaptoothed smile. We have some empty spaces, some lingering heartaches, some unease about that powerful river in our midst.

It was in 2009, one year after the flood, that Doug Neumann, now executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said he hoped the city would not be defined by the flood but by its recovery and reinvestment.

Ten years and billions of dollars later, it’s a wish fulfilled.

In Cedar Rapids, a beautiful new library, central fire station, federal courthouse, bustling NewBo district and new apartments and new businesses are among the many beacons to our recovery. In Iowa City, the glorious new Hancher Auditorium and Voxman Music Building signal our rebirth.

And yet, and yet, thousands of our neighbors lost their family pictures, their keepsakes, their kids’ drawings, their furniture, their clothes, their homes in that flood.

This anniversary is a painful line of demarcation in their lives — before the flood, after the flood.

LIVING THROUGH IT

If you weren’t here during the flood, it may be difficult to fathom the trauma of that week and the many months that followed, the immensity of what happened.

The entire downtown was abandoned and dark, its buildings marooned in a sea of still, gray water. National Guard soldiers patrolled the perimeter. Ten thousand people were displaced, many of them sleeping on cots in school gymnasiums, grieving and afraid. Hundreds lost their paychecks when their workplaces were under water.

Even those of us in homes that weren’t flooded were without electricity or air conditioning or refrigerators for days. We came within an inch of losing our running water.

If you were here, you remember the fear, the darkness, the mud — and the stench — of the weeks that followed June 13, 2008.

 

Ten square miles — 14 percent of the city’s land area — was under water. All the bridges were closed except for Interstate 380, where traffic crawled or stood still.

Schools were flooded. City Hall, public works, the animal shelter, the police and bus stations — all flooded. Churches and nonprofits, accustomed to helping people, needed help themselves.

Small business owners showed up at the Chamber of Commerce office, covered in mud, sobbing. Farmers lost millions in washed-away crops.

If you’re looking for heroes, consider the police and firefighters who climbed in boats and rescued more than 400 people (and their pets) from homes and cars.

No one died in the flood — though a few lives were shortened, in the opinion of their loved ones, during the stress and work that followed.

BACK TO LIFE

Initially, no one knew what to do. No one ever imagined a flood of this magnitude could happen in a city that knew how to handle floods — just not one that was 20 feet above flood stage, 11 feet higher than the previous record flood of 1929.

Then Alliant Energy’s fearless crews, working with electricity in flooded underground caverns, got the lights back on. City water wells were repaired, and we were able to once again shower. Quaker, somehow, reopened in a few weeks. Courts, city and county offices relocated on the outskirts of the city. Inmates returned to the Linn County Jail.

STEPPING UP

The June floods and May tornadoes in Iowa in 2008 combined to rank the state as the sixth largest disaster declaration in the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That dubious distinction puts us in the company of Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

 

After the flood, the federal government showed up with checks and temporary trailers. The state came through — big time — with money. So did the donors to the flood fund at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.

Countless volunteers, many of them from out-of-state churches, showed up to muck out the reeking houses.

Almost 42,000 tons of flood debris went to the reopened Mount Trashmore. That’s the equivalent of 900-plus Boeing 737s, not counting the broken hearts aboard.

Businessman Gary Ficken, who had lost his home and his sportswear shop, stepped into the breach and began the long effort to find help for the 850 flood-damaged businesses.

And then the Great Recession hit. Unemployment hit a 14-year high.

YET WE PERSEVERED

Businesses reopened. City Hall reopened. Schools reopened. People repaired their homes or sold out to the city and moved. Some sought counseling to deal with the trauma and loss.

Ron Corbett, elected mayor in 2009, recruited Jeff Pomeranz from West Des Moines to become the Cedar Rapids city manager. They plotted a course, found money and, working with dozens of organizations and individuals, got the city off its knees.

You may have your differences with those two men. But never doubt: Their leadership was key to the city’s recovery.

LESSONS LEARNED 

In the immediate aftermath of the flood, city leaders visited Grand Forks, N.D., to learn how that city of 50,000 recovered from an equally disastrous flood and fire in 1997. They learned a recovery would take patience, a lot of paperwork and, in all likelihood, the next 10 years. It was prophetic counsel.

 

And while Cedar Rapids does not yet have permanent flood protection for the length of the city, we’ve started. We have powerful people working to shake loose the federal millions needed to complete that work, on both sides of the river.

We learned a thing or two, too. The city’s response to the September 2016 flood — now the second highest crest, at 21.97 feet — shows how far we’ve come in being able to protect property and people when the Cedar River forgets its place.

'I WAS VERY SAD'

So, yes, we have hard-won achievements to celebrate this week.

But pause a moment to remember Alex Fernandez, who was 10 years old when the flood destroyed his grandmother Linda Seger’s home in northwest Cedar Rapids.

“I was very sad,” he wrote in an essay The Gazette published in 2009. “People were walking around everywhere talking to neighbors. They were all sad. They hugged and cried. ...

“There will always be floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. I only hope that I will never see another one in my lifetime like the flood I saw when I was 10.”

Ten years later, we join Alex in that wish, knowing it’s possible to rejoice in what we have gained, while remembering what we have lost.

l Comments: mary.sharp@thegazette.com

The author was The Gazette’s city editor in 2008 and the newspaper’s “flood editor” the year after that. She retired in 2011 and now works part-time on The Gazette copy desk.

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