How the shared tragedies of the Flood of 2008 strengthened Eastern Iowa's 'social capital'

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On Friday, June 13, 2008, Cedar Rapids was hit by epic flooding. The waters of the Cedar River crested at 31.12 feet, approximately 20 feet above flood stage and an astonishing 11 feet higher than the previous record flood set in 1929.

Ten square miles were flooded. More than 4,000 homes were destroyed. 8,000 to 10,000 jobs were lost. Total damage costs have been estimated to exceed $1.5 billion.

You know this story. You lived it. You know the flood and its devastation, the initial response and rebuilding efforts. This story has been told and retold in hundreds of articles in this newspaper and thousands of conversations on side streets and at dinner tables.

But there is another story to tell: A story of how a disaster affects not just buildings and blocks, but relationships and social ties. About how the traumas we share shape the social fabric of our community — for better and worse — and what we can do to make sure we emerge stronger after disaster.

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When the flood hit in June 2008, I was in the United Kingdom as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, researching why social trust, civic engagement, sense of togetherness and other indicators sociologists call “social capital,” has been declining in the United States since the 1960s.

I was no stranger to Eastern Iowa — my extended family lives in Mount Vernon. I have always felt a particular kinship to the area. Thus, I decided to research this flood for my dissertation.

Over the course of two site visits, in 30 in-depth interviews and in compiling hundreds of pages of notes and dozens of hours of audio recordings, I learned about how the community came together post-flood, and the circumstances under which that spirit of togetherness endured.

I met people like a woman I’ll call Gloria (I’ve changed the names of all the interviewees I mention here) who lost nearly all her furniture and belongings when the flood hit her rented home near Taylor School.

As an unemployed young mother of three children, Gloria was barely getting by before the flood. She had no ties with a church or civic group to draw on for help. When the flood hit, Gloria took refuge in her sister’s one-bedroom apartment. She stayed there with seven other people until July 1, when she moved into a new apartment out of desperation. Her decision was hasty, and soon she found herself stuck in a $700 a month apartment “plus bills” that she could not afford.

Her attempts to secure assistance and information were futile: “I’ve been applying for rental assistance through FEMA since July 1,” she told me in an interview that summer. “I’ve now faxed them 23 different pieces of paper. Half the time I can’t get through on the phone with them. I’ve been out to their office probably five times on Westdale (Mall). Nobody knows anything.”

And yet, Gloria spoke tenderly about the way the community joined together: “I even had a lady in Walgreens — I was in a line getting a prescription, this is not too long after the floods — and she said ‘I have a son in Boy Scouts, and these boys want to do whatever they can.’ And she took down my number and she said, ‘they’ll help you move your stuff out. They just want to get in and help somewhere and in some way.’ ”

SOCIAL CAPITAL

Social capital is a term social scientists use to describe the value that relationships and norms of reciprocity (our tendency to return favors) provide in our communities. From economic performance to government effectiveness, crime to education to health and well-being, the societal benefits of social capital are vast and well-documented.

Communities with a lot of social capital — where residents are connected by strong social networks, a sense of togetherness and a shared sense of community — tend to be more trusting, more civically and politically engaged, better providers of residents’ physical and emotional needs, more generous and more efficient — they just work better than other communities.

Since the late 1960s, social capital has been in sharp decline across the United States. Many scholars, including “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam, blame this decline on a generational change.

Putnam’s theory is that there was something about the shared sacrifices and common enemy of World War II that brought that generation together, whereas a polarizing war in Vietnam resulted in forever lowered levels of volunteerism, political participation, trust and social cohesion among baby boomers.

But why were these events so important? In my field research at Occidental College and later at Cambridge, I visited small to mid-sized cities to map social capital differences between age groups.

I found that when controlling for education and other demographic variables, the people I interviewed who were 62 and older did tend to be more trusting, more engaged, more altruistic, and more community-minded. Conversely, people who were in the baby boomer age demographic were markedly less rich in social capital.

But there were outliers that could not be explained.

For example, in Ferndale, Calif., I met a relative hermit who was not engaged in any clubs or associations, not a member of the civic World War II-generation, whose only forays into town were for groceries and the post office. And yet when I asked him about his sense of community and trust in others, he beamed and mentioned two obscure dates, which I would hear repeatedly during my interviews in Ferndale: 1955 and 1964.

For residents of Ferndale, these dates marked two major floods. Even though no one was killed and the flooding would hardly make a dent in the national consciousness at the time, these shared traumas were landmark experiences for the people who lived through them. Hundreds in the community were uprooted. Houses, businesses and livelihoods were damaged or destroyed. (Sound familiar?)

Decades later, Ferndale residents still remembered the concerned faces and helpful neighbors working together to rebuild. They still considered the flooding and the way the town came together as their quintessential moment of community.

That’s when I realized that whatever the size or impact, shared traumatic events make an indelible imprint on the lives of the people who experience them, for better or worse.

BETTER/WORSE

Social capital is forged by the transformative impact of shared traumas. It literally is created by the hardships we face together. Remember in 2008, the feeling that all of Cedar Rapids, and other flooded communities, were all “in the same boat,” so to speak?

That feeling was created by volunteers who turned out to muck out the flood-damaged homes of total strangers, by the sympathetic embrace offered by a neighbor. Created by the college students who repainted your house, the 90 people who turned out to clean the Mother Mosque of America, the young boy who knocked on Alan’s door one day with something in his arms: “Sorry about the floods,” the boy said, “here’s some cookies.”

These tender, resilient moments of shared humanity were the stories that Cedar Rapidians shared with me when I asked whether the community was helpful after the flood, and whether the city and its citizens were going to pull together.

Researchers call this “the therapeutic community” — the period of enhanced togetherness and community spirit we often see after a natural disaster. People in Cedar Rapids felt a greater sense of community after the flood because there was a greater sense of community. Or, as Stephanie put it, “this city, because we have lost so much, people have really worked together.”

As the weeks dragged on, that glow receded for some flood victims, as disparities in their ability to access information, their financial resources and being “plugged into the community” left some individuals particularly vulnerable.

Cedar Rapids’ low-income residents had the most riding on city actions around flood lines and were the most vulnerable before the flood, and thus were the most likely to feel disconnected with other residents once the therapeutic community evaporated.

Often, these residents’ networks were confined to their immediate neighborhood or families, who were victims themselves and thus unable to offer help.

As The Gazette reported, the flooded area of Cedar Rapids had poverty rates (12.9 percent) that were about double those of the city as a whole (7.3 percent) and Linn County (6.3 percent). The flood disproportionately affected minority residents, more of whom lived in the flood zone (12.4 percent) compared to the county as a whole (6.9 percent).

The flood revealed divisions that predated the flood. Residents who had wide social networks (what sociologists call “the strength of weak ties,” or networks beyond one’s family and immediate neighbors), stable employment, and other key demographics working in their favor (e.g., level of education) were better equipped to weather the flood. The flood was more disastrous for residents who were more vulnerable before the event.

In my interviews, these residents tended to focus on the sluggishness, misinformation, favoritism and other problems associated with the recovery, which they widely condemned.

At first glance, this stands in stark contrast to what I heard from residents who were not still mucking and gutting their homes or businesses, who tended to focus on the city’s initial response and the emergence of therapeutic community, which they widely lauded.

However, in a finding that is significant for the future potential of community in Cedar Rapids, residents who still were in dire straits also lauded the city and community’s initial response when I asked them about it, while residents who had returned “mostly back to normal” also condemned the problems with the recovery efforts when this topic came up.

The tale of Cedar Rapids post-flood came to me not as a tale of two cities but as a tale of one highly stratified city focused on two different areas ... a tale of one city with similar perceptions, nonetheless.

A focus on “what we overcame” versus “what we are still overcoming” can lead to social rifts and resentment — you feel “in limbo” while it seems that your neighbor is “just having a normal summer” — but the basis is similarly rooted: something big happened; we survived (or are still surviving). In either case, there is an “us.”

MOVING ON

Nearly seven years after the flood of 2008, simple statements like, “the flood improved the sense of community in Cedar Rapids” or “the flood tore community apart” sound vacuous and simplistic. Cedar Rapidians fondly recall how the community came together after the flood like they had never seen before — working together, feeling as if they had a responsibility for each other, that it was their city.

But they also still feel deep sadness and loss for neighbors that moved away, for homes and heirlooms lost, for the exhaustion and sinking feeling that permeated your life for much of these past few years.

Some days you focus on the new relationships you have formed through the flood — built in rebuilding — and how you surprised even yourself with your strength and resiliency. Other days you focus on what you lost, what the community lost — people, trust in government, entire neighborhoods and a way of life.

But most days, you live your life in this new normal, looking forward and living in the present together, yet forever shaped by the past.

Whatever the flood’s legacy, you know that it has a legacy, bigger than just one day or one neighborhood or one city. It is the legacy of a disaster, experienced together, the story of humankind.

Cedar Rapids can seize the social capital created by the flood and boost it among residents who felt left out in the recovery. The way to do this is to follow the playbook of what brought the community together immediately after the flood. Here are three ways:

• Honor the shared sacrifice of the flood with a citywide day of volunteerism on June 13. Cedar Rapids came together after the flood because people looked beyond their own immediate problems, asked “what can I do for my fellow neighbor?” and responded as best they could.

If this sounds too Pollyannish for you, then just assume that people finally saw how their immediate problems “are not so different from yours,” and realized that mutual support was required.

So this year, amid the building re-openings and ribbon cuttings, why not memorialize what you went through together and what you are capable of? You can do this by flooding your non-profits, neighborhoods and the needy with love, support, and service on this day together. Just because the waters have receded does not mean you no longer need each other or have vulnerabilities to overcome.

• Help each other every day. Remember the people you meet may be experiencing their own version of June 13 that day — a death in the family, a layoff at work, a breakup — and treat them as someone who is strong but may be in a moment of weakness. Remember: it is OK to ask for and to offer help, even if you are from the Midwest.

• Forget about normal; focus on now. You survived a 500-year flood together and will never be the same. Embrace it; like Ferndale and New Orleans and New York City, the imprint of this disaster will always be with the Cedar Rapids community.

As a city or even as a neighborhood, host “town hall” type forums where people focus on sharing what they need and what they can give. This will improve information-sharing, uncover invisible needs and reestablish common bonds. For just under the surface, it is our shared strengths and vulnerabilities, traumas and triumphs, that make us human.

• Kevin F. Adler is an entrepreneur and sociologist based in San Francisco. Portions of this column have been adapted from his book, Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital: A Case Study of the 500-Year Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For more information or to share your story, visit www.500yearflood.com. Comments: kevin@nearshot.com

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