Life

In Iowa: From fire to flood, we're in it all together

A crowd gathers last Monday in Paris to watch as firefighters douse flames from the burning Notre Dame Cathedral. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
A crowd gathers last Monday in Paris to watch as firefighters douse flames from the burning Notre Dame Cathedral. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

When images of Notre Dame burning filled the news Monday, my mind went back to high school, when a group of my classmates and I left our parents behind for a chance to tour Paris — and visit the famed cathedral — with one of our teachers.

I remember climbing the stone steps outside Notre Dame and contemplating how many people had walked there before.

I wasn’t the only one last week remembering past Parisian visits. My social media timelines were filled with photos and memories. Someone on Twitter snidely remarked that reactions to the fire quickly had turned into a litany of people bragging about Paris vacations. I didn’t interpret it that way.

Rather, I saw people trying to express a connection to a place, to a piece of history, to a shared sense of pain.

I’ve been contemplating those kinds of shared experiences lately, in this season of Easter and spring, of floods that cover farm fields even as we look to new growth and hope for future harvests.

Fires and floods are implacable forces of nature. They sweep away illusions that we are in control of very much of anything. Even when we are their cause, through something as small as faulty wiring or as big as climate change, once in motion we are caught in their grip.

We fight the fires and build levies against the rising rivers but at the end of the day can only do so much before we must turn to hopes and prayers and bated breath.

The Notre Dame fire would have been much worse, reports said, if firefighters had not risked their lives to enter the burning structure and battle the fire from within. Was it worth it, to risk those lives, for the sake of centuries of history and faith, bound up in wood and stained glass and stone? Some things you cannot put a price on, and both human lives and the historic memory of a culture are among them.

We can put a cold, hard number on financial losses from our floods here in the Midwest; insurance claims filed, crops damaged, flood mitigation efforts funded. Harder to quantify, perhaps, are other losses — of feeling secure in a place called home, of envisioning the future as better than the past.

In Cedar Rapids, we know the cost of a flood. The anguish of people whose lives were washed away, the hard slog of salvaging belongings from homes filled with mud and mold, the years it takes to recover.

We also know rebuilding is possible, and that it is possible to come back even stronger than you were when you started.

The French have already pledged to rebuild their cathedral, and there is no reason to doubt them, with ample funds and goodwill secured. Sharing a photo or a memory doesn’t feel like much, but perhaps it is part of the collective outpouring that makes such rebuilding possible.

I don’t know how we, as humans, decide where to focus our goodwill. Along with the floods in Iowa and Nebraska that have been so devastating this spring, I’ve been watching the aftermath of flooding in southern Africa, where more than 1,000 have died in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi after Cyclone Idai slammed into the Mozambican city of Beira, on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

My heart breaks for those places, where, just like here, many people make their living farming and are just trying to provide for their families. They, too, need to know whether they can bring in tomorrow’s harvest.

The world is so large, and its problems so many. I know I have paid attention to those Mozambican floods because, like Paris, I feel a connection there thanks to the blessings of past travels. I could share my photos and remembrances of those beautiful places alongside my Paris memories. But there are many more tragedies I am not thinking about.

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My hope, I guess, this Easter season is that when floods rise and fires roar, we don’t look away from each other. That we share our memories, reach out with our condolences and our help and our hope. Whether in Iowa or France or Mozambique, we’re all in this together.

• Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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