CEDAR RAPIDS — What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes. And seven years after the Flood of 2008, Cedar Rapids is indeed stronger, said panelists at a public forum at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
The Gazette and KCRG-TV9 hosted the Thursday evening event, “Learning Forward: A Community Forum on Social Capital.” KCRG’s Bruce Aune moderated a discussion between five panelists, who took questions from the audience.
Panelists were Linda Seger, treasurer and former president of the Northwest Neighborhood Association; Courtney Ball, co-founder and former executive director of Matthew 25; Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the Czech Village & New Bohemia Main Street District; and Stephanie Neff, Blue Zones Project community manager, along with sociologist Kevin Adler.
Adler is author of “Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Change: A Study of the 500-Year Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.” The book looks at the way the flood uncovered strengths and challenges in community networks and relationships — what Adler calls “social capital.”
Seger said social capital is what got many people through the flood.
“Our neighbors were our best allies,” she said. “We were bound together by the disaster. That’s what we initially drew our strength from.”
The disaster also created a deeper sense of community, Ball said.
“I probably talked to my neighbors more in the two weeks after the flood than I had in the two years before it,” he said. “I think the flood forced us out of our comfort zones in a lot of ways. ... I know it was painful, but pain can be good for us.”
Seger said it’s important to acknowledge that despite how far the city has come, much was lost.
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“Seven years later, many people still struggle economically. So it’s important to not just focus on the advancements,” she said. “When there was that much devastation, a lot fell through the cracks.”
For some, social capital was lost, not gained. With whole neighborhoods destroyed, many people’s support systems collapsed.
“When we talk about greenways and flood protection systems, for many it still is a painful reminder of neighborhoods that were vibrant,” she said. “The networking of those neighborhoods is gone, it’s grass.”
The flood disproportionately affected African Americans in Cedar Rapids, who were more likely to live in the flood plain and see their homes destroyed, Seger noted. She said minority communities need to be part of the conversations about recovery, but that doesn’t always happen — she pointed out that the forum’s panel was all white.
“We need to make much more of an effort to reach out and include more people,” she said. “We need to raise more people to our committees and councils that bring a different perspective.”
As Cedar Rapids looks to the future, Neff said engagement will be key to maintaining the sense of community the flood fostered. Give people input in community development plans and they’ll feel a greater stake in the outcome, she said. There should be public spaces and well-publicized ways to get involved.
Seger said she believes the social capital that grew from the flood provides a foundation.
“We are much better than we were in 2008 ... There is more to do to be an even better city,” she said. “I think 50 years from now, people will say we developed a better city afterward.”
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