Flood 2016: Eastern Iowa volunteers rise to the occasion

October 2, 2016 | 12:19 pm
(from left) Matthew 25 urban farm production manager Eric Christianson of Iowa City holds a light as Green Iowa AmeriCorps members Max Lieberman of Iowa City and Austin Yantes of North Liberty rehang a light fixture in the basement of Matthew 25's offices on Third Ave SW on Friday, September 30, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Chapter 1:

CEDAR RAPIDS — After hearing that the Cedar River was rising yet again, Clint Twedt-Ball looked around the newly renovated headquarters of the southwest side non-profit Matthew 25 and wondered if it was all for naught.

Not just the $1.3 million renovation, which Matthew 25 staff were planning to show off at an Oct. 14 ribbon cutting, but all the work his friends and neighbors had done over the last eight years since the last flood. Painstaking, hard work — rebuilding homes, refurbishing businesses, letting go of the things that had been lost and starting new.

Matthew 25 had been there since the early days of that work. Started by Twedt-Ball and his brother, Courtney Ball, in 2006, it grew into its own after the historic flood of 2008 with its Block by Block campaign, which worked with homeowners and merchants to rebuild neighborhoods.

Wondering if all that effort was in vain, flashbacks of those long months come back.

“For me, it was that physical feeling of what we used to call flood brain and backache and headache, it was showing up in the pit of my stomach,” Twedt-Ball said. “At the same time, it’s like, this is why we said we wanted to be in that building, so we would feel the same anxiety and tension and go through the same thing as the neighbors.”

If they chose not to abandon the neighborhood, the neighbors weren’t abandoning them, either.

The organization has about nine people on staff. But after a call for help on Facebook, more than 100 volunteers showed up to sandbag and move everything from the building.

They weren’t alone.

All across the city, the volunteers were there.

"For me, it was that physical feeling of what we used to call flood brain and backache and headache, it was showing up in the pit of my stomach. At the same time, it’s like, this is why we said we wanted to be in that building, so we would feel the same anxiety and tension and go through the same thing as the neighbors."

- Clint Twedt-Ball

Matthew 25 executive director

They were the Coe College students carrying books up from the basement of the Cherry Building. They were the union members who showed up to help disassemble chairs at the Paramount Theatre. They were the businesses that offered storage space, trucks and more. They were church congregants who stood side-by-side with members of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids to sandbag each others’ homes.

From every school and college and neighborhood, people turned out to make sandwiches, deliver water bottles, lift furniture and fill sandbags.

Much of it was spontaneous, an outpouring of help from a city desperate to do something, anything, in the face of another flood. It was a way of saying we are not helpless. We cannot control the river’s rise, but we can do this.

At Jefferson High School, students scheduled for two band competitions asked if they could sandbag instead.

“This community just simply set everything aside to take care of business when it mattered most,” Jefferson’s Director of Bands Thad Driskell said. “The full community stepped up.”

He said many of the students remembered the flood of 2008. Some had lost their homes.

“The weren’t at an age then where they could really have served,” Driskell said. “Now they saw the opportunity to go out, and they embraced the opportunity.”

There was plenty for them to embrace.

“This community just simply set everything aside to take care of business when it mattered most. The full community stepped up."

- Thad Triskell

Jefferson Director of Bands

Thousands of calls came in to the United Way of East Central Iowa’s 211 number, a portal to connect those in need with services and volunteers. The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, known as HACAP, and Foundation 2 ramped up their phone banks to take the calls — over 4,500 of them came in between Sept. 22 and Sept. 27.

People called asking for information — where they could find shelter as they prepared to evacuate, when they could return and how they could apply for flood-related financial assistance. With the city’s bus service stopped, they asked for rides so they could get food or medicine or go to the doctor. They asked for help moving belongings and they asked for help getting sandbags.

They also asked where they could donate, and they asked where to volunteer. More than 500 filled out volunteer profiles at www.uweci.org. Staff then matched volunteers with needs. Hundreds, possibly thousands, more showed up at sandbagging locations posted on the website.

Carol Duggan of Cedar Rapids (center) hands a bottle of water and sandwiches to Mike Robinson, a worker with Rathje Construction (right) and Ken Rathje (left) in the Time Check/Ellis Park neighborhood in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Duggan says she was in the area helping her daughter move out and wanted to do something for the people building the walls. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

Volunteer hub

United Way of East Central Iowa Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications Shannon Hanson said United Way was designated as the volunteer hub after a meeting of Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster.

LAP-AID formed in response to the 2008 flood. A partnership of area non-profits, faith groups and government bodies, LAP-AID members met to discuss how they would respond most effectively to this new flood and which organizations would handle which aspects.

That made a big difference in the smoothness of response, Hanson said.

In 2008, “At first people just didn’t know who was going to make the final decisions. They just hadn’t had to come together to figure it out before,” she said.

She said 2008 helped clarify which organizations were equipped to do what and what needs might arise. It made the LAP-AID meeting to assign roles fast and positive, she said.

“In 2008, we had no idea what was about to happen. In 2016, the memories are still fresh in our minds, and everyone responded so quickly to help prepare the city. It shows how much community members can pull together,” United Way Manager of Volunteer Engagement Sue Driscoll said in an email.

Time was also key.

“It really did help that we had a lot more notice on this one. In 2008, I remember sandbagging at the YMCA downtown and watching the water get closer and closer,” she said. “It’s a very different feeling this time."

Executive director Clint Twedt-Ball opens up a drain in the basement of Matthew 25's offices on Third Ave SW on Friday, September 30, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Chapter 3:

Social media helps

A second hub sprang up online, where several Facebook groups and pages dedicated to flood relief and recovery formed within days. With names like CR Flood Help 2016, 2016 Flood of Cedar Rapids, Cedar Rapids, Iowa Flood Help and Clean Up-Post CR Flood 2016, they quickly garnered thousands of followers, with people sharing information and connecting requests and offers to help.

Businesswoman Jackie Fetter Stiles started CR Flood Help 2016, which quickly grew to some 5,500 members.

“People innately have that desire to contribute and work for the greater good, and I guess not everyone knows how,” she said.

Social media can be a platform to point them to the need, she said, one that wasn’t utilized as much in 2008 as now.

Jordan Caviness, who started Clean Up-Post CR Flood 2016, agreed.

“There are just a lot of people who wanted to help. With Facebook, it’s essentially live, so you can see who has been taken care of and who still needs help,” he said. “Some people were getting sandbags within 10 minutes of putting out that they needed them.”

He is co-owner of Red’s Public House bar and restaurant downtown and said he was amazed at how many people — high school sports teams, other business owners, complete strangers — showed up to help move everything from the eatery.

“It’s a little bit shocking, because some of the people who are helping you also have their own businesses or homes in danger, and they’re still out helping you. It seems a lot of things happened a lot quicker because we were working together,” he said. “You have all sorts of people helping, all different walks of life, from any part of town … All the community came together and took care of the community.”

Now that the river is returning to normal levels, the sandbags are coming down and businesses are reopening, Twedt-Ball said he feels a sense of relief. Matthew 25’s building got some water in the basement, which staff and volunteers started cleaning up Friday. They moved the ribbon cutting to Nov. 11.

He’s contemplating what the organization’s next steps will be — perhaps advocacy for a more comprehensive flood protection system.

For now, Matthew 25 is focused on cleanup and celebration.

On Monday, it’ll set up the grill and sound system and invite neighbors for a midday block party.

“We just want to let people come as they’re able and have something to eat,” Twedt-Ball said. “We came through this as a community, let’s celebrate as a community.”

Noland Gurwell of Cedar Rapids and two of his children, twins, Mira (left) Grayson, 5, help make sandbags in New Bohemia in preparation for the projected Monday crest of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Chapter 4:

Volunteer or find help

The United Way will continue to connect volunteers and those seeking assistance going forward. Call 211 anytime, not just during the flood emergency, to find resources and be connected with services. Visit www.uweci.org to create a volunteer profile.