116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Encouraged. Weakened. Back to normal. Peaceful. Optimistic.
It seems there are as many answers about how the Flood of 2008 affected Cedar Rapids neighborhoods as there are residents of those areas. Perhaps SanDee Skelton, a longtime Cedar Rapids resident who lives on the northwest side, has the best summation of what lies ahead: “Questionable.”
“It's really questionable about where the neighborhood is headed,” said Skelton, who has lived in the northwest area for most of her life and had four to five feet of water in her home after the 2008 flood.
Five years after the Cedar River crested at more than 31 feet, “recovery” has different meanings for different people. As a result, Cedar Rapidians hold disparate ideas of how the next five years will look, with street addresses serving as an element.
Recovery efforts can't be reduced to issues of geography, according to Jennifer Pratt.
“If one neighborhood is doing well, its adjoining neighborhoods have to be doing well,” said Pratt, a planner with the city of Cedar Rapids' community development department. “If the flood taught us anything, it's that the river shouldn't be a divider.”
Pratt and her colleagues shirked neighborhood divisions when it came to recovery efforts, which are still ongoing, favoring a system of dividing the reinvestment areas into three regions that encompass 10 neighborhoods.
Public and private investment
Through its voluntary acquisition program, the city of Cedar Rapids bought 1,297 of the more than 1,300 estimated available residential and commercial properties damaged in the surge, and the city is in the process of buying another 79 as of April 18. The properties are throughout the inundation area, though most are on west side. Joe O'Hern, executive administrator for development services for the city, said that's a function of where the flood hit and what types of properties existed there.
He praised that program and the city's single family new construction program which puts people into new homes.
“In the voluntary acquisition, there were neighborhoods that were harder hit than others,” he said. “I think we've been very happy and encouraged in the level of interest and reinvestment in these core areas.”
O'Hern's vision of the future includes concluding those programs. Both he and Pratt are encouraged by the population growth the city has seen in the last decade and are optimistic that private investment will come, helping to revitalize all of the flood-damaged areas in the long term, though some areas will rebound faster than others.
“We want to see these neighborhoods really strong and vital,” O'Hern said. “It is the core of the community and you want that core to be vibrant.”
New Bohemia, part of the Oak Hill Jackson Neighborhood Association region, has garnered a lot of attention for its commercial comeback, which includes the NewBo City Market and a host of restaurants. Mike Richards, former president of the neighborhood association and a local business owner, predicted promise for the area's future.
“It's definitely hit velocity and I think in the next year or two it will hit critical mass,” he said.
But with progress comes friction, as Richards and other Oak Hill Jackson dwellers voice concerns about gentrification and making sure the area's retail property boom doesn't eclipse or prevent growth in single-family home ownership over the next decade.
“I'd like to see more houses and a park across the street,” said Elizabeth Beets, who has lived in the neighborhood since the '60s and saw her home “completely flooded” in 2008. “Hopefully they'll have houses down here … I think it'll be for the better.”
Myrlene Strawn, president of the Cedar Valley Neighborhood Association, isn't as sure about where she lives. The tandem of the flood and economic challenges have served as dual blows for certain residents of Cedar Valley, which includes Rompot.
Strawn has watched her neighbors depart or struggle to rebuild and flood protection efforts have in her mind been “disappointing.” She said she hopes the next few years bring increased recovery assistance for homeowners, if not from the city than from area nonprofits.
“Unless they get help, I don't anticipate seeing a lot of changes and it worries me that if there's another flood, that they will get hit again because they're on the tail end of Cedar Rapids,” said Strawn, a lifelong city resident. “They're the last neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. They're not what they call a ‘core neighborhood.'”
Time Check and the adjoining northwest neighborhood is a region where things are also uncertain.
Many residents agreed that growth is happening, but at what rate and for how long are anyone's guess.
“I think that, to some degree, it's going to depend on when better flood protection can be provided for the area,” said Tony Christopherson, who has lived in the northwest area for more than a decade.
Both he and Lynn Stansbery, a lifelong Cedar Rapids resident whose basement and first floor were damaged in the flood, felt that recovery hasn't moved as quickly as they would've liked.
“I know a lot of people are disappointed because they think Time Check is done,” she said. “It's not the place. It's the people. We're still here and we're not going anywhere … They want it to be the same but it's never going to be the same.”
Ann Poe, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council and former Time Check resident, is not ready to give up on the area even though she acknowledged the unique hurdles it faces in recovery. Among those challenges are its geography, being located in the 100-year flood plain, the lack of flood protection and the restrictions on how the city's recovery dollars can be spent.
Still, she said, her colleagues in local government are doing their best under the constraints. But what if that isn't enough for Time Check?
“I can't let myself think that way. I just can't. I refuse to think that way,” Poe said. “I've got to be optimistic.”
A renewed call for flood protection followed the Cedar River's 10th highest crest, at 18.23 feet, on June 2.
The elevated river affected those northwest neighborhoods in the form of flooding in the Ellis Boulevard NW area as well as the closure of the Edgewood Road bridge. Poe called the situation a "wake-up call."
"Overall it's a reminder of the importance of flood protection on both sides of the river and how vulnerable we are to Mother Nature," said Poe, who hopes it will be in place by the summer of 2018. "If anything it makes me more resolved than ever and it reminds me of what we need and what we'll be living with until we get a final solution in place."
In New Bohemia, business owners and volunteers sandbagged to protect against what was forecast to be a 19.8 foot crest, which would've been the river's fourth highest level in Cedar Rapids. Richards spent a day moving furniture in the Matyk Building, where he plans to house a new restaurant, away from impending danger that didn't materialize. He said building permanent flood protection would unleash growth in the neighborhood.
"We may have to take these precautions until a flood wall is built," he said. "I definitely would like to see permanent flood protection built. Anyone who presently moved into the NewBo district, it's wide open that this is a potential threat. We have to be vigilant and ready to move (in the event of a flood) … That's the cost of doing business in New Bohemia."