A few hundred people on Thursday morning gathered on May’s Island in the middle of the Cedar River here to commemorate the city’s historic flood of 2008, with a firefighter clanging a bell five times at 10:15 a.m. to mark the moment of the five-year anniversary of the flood’s disastrous crest.
In keynote remarks, Mayor Ron Corbett said it was important even now to continue to tell the story of the city’s disaster because it makes the city’s rebuilding story all the more "amazing."
"We have to recognize that people’s lives were turned upside down, finances were put in jeopardy, homes were lost," the mayor said. He said there was the stench of flood-ruined things; the sleepless nights; the anxiety that continues even now for some, every time it rains.
"… That is part of our story," Corbett said. "It is a part that cannot be forgotten. … But the other part of the story is the rebuilding of the community."
On a midmorning that couldn’t have been prettier and more different from the one five years ago, the downtown skyline showed off some of what he was talking about: the new federal courthouse, the renovated and just reopened downtown hotel; a renovated City Hall; and a construction crane at the site of a second new parking ramp under construction.
The mayor talked, too, about the renovated homes, the newly built ones to replace the 1,000 lost to the flood, the new central fire station and library. But he said he didn’t want boasting to obscure the diaster’s costs.
"The fact is, we did have a natural disaster — a flood that ranks as one of the worst natural disasters in our country’s history," he said.
KCRG-TV9’s news anchors Bruce Aune and Beth Malicki served as emcees for the anniversary event during which they asked nine local officials and leaders for their thoughts about the flood and the city’s flood recovery.
Jim Ernst, president/CEO of Four Oaks, noted the flood damaged or ruined much of the city’s "necessary" affordable housing, but he said some $40 million in mostly public funding with some private help renovated many homes and replaced most of the homes lost to the flood.
Ernst went back almost five years and told the story of an elderly woman outside of her flooded home, scrubbing the outside of it even though she knew it was going to be demolished in the city’s buyout program.
"It’s not going to go out of this world dirty,’" Ernst recalled her saying. She’s now in a newly renovated home in her old neighborhood, he added.
"There are pieces that we’ve lost, but there are so many pieces that we’ve gained," he said.
Gary Ficken, whose Bimm Ridder Sportswear company was flooded out of its former home and who headed up a small business recovery group, said disaster authorities warned him that 55 percent of the city’s 1,000 flood-impacted businesses would be closed in three years. Only 18 percent were, though that still means 170 businesses and 2,500 jobs were lost, he said. Those that survived, he added, have taken on 50 percent more debt to get back open and stay open.
"Many, many businesses have recovered from the outside look, but inside their books there’s a lot of debt to pay off yet," Ficken said.
Doug Neumann, vice president of the Metro Economic Alliance, recalled standing in the downtown skywalks at the crest of the flood, in part, looking to see what the water had done to 36 pieces of public art that his office had just placed on the downtown streets. At first, he said he was reassured to see the biggest of the pieces — a 2-ton sculpture, "Warhorse," standing tall. Then he noticed it was a block from where it had been placed.
"It was one of those really eye-popping moments about just how powerful the flood was," he remembered. "And it really raised fears … of what other kind of damage are we facing and how long is this recovery going to take."
Both David Benson, superintendent of the Cedar Rapids schools, and Linda Seger, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, said it was not yet time to forget the trauma and the emotional wounds that the flood brought with it and left behind.
"… There are many people who will never feel the safety net or the stability they had the day before the flood or a week before the flood," Seger said.
Benson said he had polled a faculty and staff group in recent days after last week’s flood scare in the city, asking if anyone felt a sense of anxiety as the river climbed again.
"And every hand went up," Benson reported.
Gayle Naughton, president/CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, said the flood and the flood recovery really taught her and others "what you were made of.""You really had to dig down deep, for everybody, business owners, homeowners," Naughton said. "You had to dig down deep and think about, ‘Who am I and how am I going to react to this? How am I going to come out of this and find, I think, strength and personal power that you didn’t even know you had?’ Because you had to draw it out to come back from this. … I’m proud of what the city has done."