116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It took only two days for rising waters from the Cedar River to recede from John Rocarek’s west-side business — the iconic Sykora Bakery in Czech Village — after the river crested over 31 feet in June 2008.
But the toll the historic flood took on his business is something that he said still lingers today.
“It was like total devastation,” Rocarek recalled.
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Once he and some helping hands were able to begin working on the building, he said they had to gut it and start over. There was 8-1/2 feet of water in the bakery, leaving few salvageable items behind in the muck. The bakery was closed for 10 months. His home was flooded, too.
Busloads of volunteers from across the country drove in to assist local merchants and put his business back together — 332 volunteers contributed more 2,500 hours, by Rocarek’s count.
According to the city, the flood swamped 5,390 houses in Cedar Rapids, dislocating more than 18,000 people.
To the north and south of the bakery, Rocarek said 1,100 families moved. The sheer number of dislocated families — whether they moved to other parts of the city or out of Cedar Rapids — took a portion of Sykora’s customer base with them, he said and, 14 years later, sales still haven’t fully ticked up.
“We’re still suffering from that, even though we’ve been around forever,” Rocarek said. “If it weren’t for all of these people that have a history with us — people that live out of town that come and visit their folks and their grandparents here in town — we wouldn’t have been able to stay open. That played a key role in our being able to stay open, the fact that we had that customer base from out of town.”
The flood was just the first of several disasters Rocarek’s business experienced, before another smaller flood in 2016, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 derecho’s hurricane-force winds — “everything that could possibly happen,” he said.
Though the scenario may change from one disaster to another, leaders of Iowa communities who have grappled with devastating events say adversity also presents opportunities to build anew and emerge better than before.
While the immediate focus in the aftermath of a disaster is on securing human life and property, to make the most of a disaster scenario and pave a path for a strong recovery, cities also must lift up the businesses that provide jobs and keep the community’s economic wheels turning.
‘More problems’ if businesses struggle
Monica Vernon, Czech Village New Bohemia District executive director and a former Cedar Rapids City Council member who served during the 2008 floods, said before government entities can help people and businesses, they must first help themselves.
After a natural disaster, other cities might send boom trucks and dump trucks to help clear debris. Volunteer groups trickle in from around the nation. Having agreements in place for other municipalities to assist in an emergency is key, she said, because a city can’t always count on the availability of its own resources after devastation.
“When you go through a major disaster, you need major help,” Vernon said.
Cities also must work with local not-for-profits and their local Chamber of Commerce, she said. In Cedar Rapids, the chamber — now the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance — had a list of many businesses in town. With that tool, officials went door to door to identify their needs, whether it was cleaning muck or restoring power.
After working to help homeowners recover and stave off major problems before winter crept in, Vernon said the priority was taking strides to retain businesses so people could keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
Plus, she said, it helps restore neighborhoods and puts property back on the tax rolls as opposed to letting buildings languish before the city has to demolish them or move them through the disposition process.
“If we let a bunch of businesses go, and we don’t, as city employees or city elected people, help these businesses get back on their feet, we’re going to have more problems,” Vernon said. “We’re going to have people without jobs, a lot of people, we’re going to have people not bringing the building back because they don’t have the finances to bring their business back.”
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In central Iowa, Marshalltown faced the prospect of losing major employers after an EF-3 tornado ripped through the city of nearly 27,000 located northeast of Des Moines.
HVAC manufacturer Lennox’s Marshalltown facility was leveled by the tornado, Mayor Joel Greer recalled. Employees huddled in emergency rooms and restrooms through the storm — emerging to find their vehicles and workplace destroyed.
One of the best announcements he was able to make was when General Plant Manager Miguel Gutierrez told him, “You can be the one to let everyone know we’re going to stay in Marshalltown and rebuild it.”
The company was able to get the workforce of around 350 back to work quicker than anyone imagined, Greer said.
The meatpacking plant for JBS — the town’s largest employer, providing about 2,300 jobs — was affected by the storm when winds ripped out insulation and panels of the distribution center. It also exposed a static freezer, which held 24 million pounds of pork, to the elements, according to the Marshalltown Times-Republican.
Building back better
Most Cedar Rapids businesses came back after the flood, but Vernon said that was part of a strategic effort with city, state and federal government aid stepping in to help people on the ground and connect them with resources.
City staff work to maintain relationships with a variety of businesses through business retention visits made throughout the year, an annual business survey and other means, said David Connolly, city economic development specialist.
Those contacts helped after the August 2020 derecho, when he was able to do a series of one-on-one interviews immediately in the days after the storm and identify how the city could help businesses reopen swiftly. The ongoing feedback also helps the city “plug that information back into the topic development process to help us set priorities for city by the initiatives,” he said.
Cedar Rapids after the 2016 floods conducted its first business loss survey and did another one after the derecho to help grasp the magnitude of disruption local businesses can experience amid a disaster.
The outreach helps the city leverage its own resources to find solutions, filling the gaps with a number of state and federal resources that come to bear in disaster response, as well as private insurance in many cases, city Economic Development Manager Caleb Mason said.
“It’s an ongoing relationship with the business community,” Mason said. “We’re not just doing this because there was a disaster.”
For example, after the 2016 floods, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the city launched a fund for qualifying small businesses to seek a grant award up to $5,000 to assist with covering sales losses, flood mitigation measures or other costs associated with the disruption that were not covered by insurance.
The need to maintain relationships holds true for state and federal government officials and other municipalities — all of whom have come to Cedar Rapids’ aid after major disasters.
On a larger scale, Cedar Rapids relies on state and federal funding to supplement local funding to build its $750 million permanent flood control system.
Pomeranz said Cedar Rapids pitched the idea of funding the flood mitigation system through a “three-legged stool” layering support from those three levels of government.
Federal funding through the Army Corps of Engineers contributes to the east side of the river, though the west side is not eligible under a federal cost-benefit formula. With state partners, the city successfully lobbied Iowa lawmakers to craft legislation allowing Cedar Rapids to receive sales tax dollars for flood control. And the City Council in 2018 backed a 10-year bonding plan to pay for a portion of the overall flood control system, supported by 22-cent annual increases in the city’s property tax levy.
“We don’t operate alone,” Pomeranz said. “We reach out, we develop relationships, we work with others and we support the other communities when they have issues.”
Building up reserves to maintain capacity to recover from disasters or manage an economic downturn also is key, Pomeranz said.
Nearly two years after the derecho, Cedar Rapids had dollars available internally to spend more than
$40 million cleaning up and beginning recovery efforts such as debris removal and tree replanting, rather than emergency borrowing or forgoing the efforts altogether.
That helped jumpstart recovery, as it takes time to go through the federal reimbursement process.
“Not every community, not every city, not every county is in the kind of financial shape that allows them to simply make improvements or perform the work that has to be done after a disaster,” Pomeranz said. “ … We’re in a fortunate position.”
Like Cedar Rapids, Greer said, Marshalltown is using the devastation of the tornado to improve its central business district and return more vibrant than before, with expanded retail options to entice small business owners back to Main Street.
Marshalltown’s smaller businesses largely have hung on since the storm, Greer said, and used property damage as an opportunity to improve their facades, such as the Ocean City Chinese Restaurant.
“People are taking it up a notch,” Greer said.
‘Catalyst’ to recover
Jon Jelinek, owner of Parlor City Pub and Eatery, has bought several buildings on Third Street SE between 10th and 12th Avenues SE, next to CSPS Hall — an opportunity that arose after the 2008 flood. He advocated for historic buildings on the block to be saved and restored rather than torn down, and today his properties are central to the main street of the New Bohemia District.
“It was a good thing,” Jelinek said of the flood. “NewBo was planned before that, and it just kind of expedited” it.
For Jelinek and Sykora Bakery’s Rocarek, insurance covered much of the damage. Jelinek was able to invest in other properties and start Parlor City. Rocarek covered around $200,000 with insurance money, but it still cost $150,000 to put Sykora back together — through a loan and federal grant money, part of which he said was funneled through the city.
They said they’re getting walloped by flood insurance premiums, but with the promise of permanent flood control on the horizon, they’re eager to save thousands of dollars annually once the protective system of pumps, gates and levees is built.
Local, “homegrown” businesses are at the heart of a community’s culture, Vernon said.
“You can be the catalyst to get federal money and other kinds of money in, and nonprofit money, too, from other parts of the country,” Vernon said of government’s role in a disaster.
Because of Sykora Bakery’s historic nature, having been in Cedar Rapids since its 1903 opening, Rocarek said it wasn’t an option not to come back after the 2008 flood. But having multiple helping hands made Sykora’s return possible.
“Small businesses particularly are like the backbone of any community,” Rocarek said. “Anything the city can do to protect the small businesses is important.”
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To bring to life the flood control system, the city overall has secured:
$117 million from the Army Corps
$269 million in Iowa Flood Mitigation funds
$264 million in local funds
$16 million in state and federal grants.
Source: Cedar Rapids’ fiscal 2021 report, which does not include ARPA funds