Yes, it has been a decade and, yes, it just seems like yesterday.
June marks the 10-year anniversary of the historic 2008 flood. We need to both commemorate and celebrate.
First, we commemorate to remember the event and the struggle the people of Cedar Rapids had to endure. No lives were lost, but plenty was lost. Homes, businesses, personal possessions and the emotional effects never can be measured.
Who can forget the iconic picture of boat houses stacked up against the railroad bridge? How about the picture of an emotional Vince Fiala pointing his finger at a National Guard soldier wanting to get back into his home like so many others to assess the damage?
It wasn’t easy on anyone, especially those who lost so much. Commemorating is healthy; it reminds us of the toll the flood took on our community. The hardship of cleaning up and rebuilding showed grit most people didn’t realize they possessed. People were faced with the task of cleaning up — along with the knowledge that the journey of recovery would be long.
During that long journey, time does what we hope. It heals, and progress shows. The progress we made is why we celebrate in addition to commemorating. We have much to celebrate. We have seen many visual changes to our community. The list of building projects is very long and continues to grow. In addition to the tangible changes, our belief that Cedar Rapids’ best days are still ahead has been restored. Community pride in the success of the recovery swells in each one of us. Why? Because the journey was long and often unknown and in many people’s minds success wasn’t a sure thing. Dual emotions will be experienced by many as we pass this milestone. Somber feelings as we commemorate, coupled with joy as we celebrate.
I often am asked what project, organization or accomplishment made the difference. There are many. There is one aspect of the recovery, however, that doesn’t get mentioned. It played more of a role than most people realize: political connections. All connections are important; in a disaster, political connections are critical. In our highly toxic political environment, people are prone to withdraw and throw their hands up. I can’t tell you how many people I come across who say: “I hate politics,” “The system is corrupt,” “I have no use for politicians.” I can’t blame people for having those feeling. I experience them from time to time myself.
Instead of withdrawing from politics it is better to engage. Thankfully, the city of Cedar Rapids had people engaged in the system. How many years was the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids scheduled to be built? More than 20! After the flood, thanks to judges such as Judge Mallory and his tireless advocacy of the courthouse through the years, it became a reality. Remember when we were about to lose the new library based on an obscure FEMA rule. Beth Freeman, a former staff member of Sen. Tom Harkin, was working for FEMA as regional director. She helped with interpretation of the rules, which cleared the way for construction on our award-winning library. These are just two examples. There are others. It wasn’t only federal government connection that made a difference. State government stepped up and is contributing to flood construction — $15 million per year for the next 15 years. You can see construction today in Czech Village. Having relationships with legislators such as Sen. Bob Dvorsky Coralville, Speaker Kraig Paulsen from Hiawatha helped make that legislation a reality.
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So many of these “politicians” stepped up to help Cedar Rapids. I wish I could name them all. You know who you are, and I say thank you. A few months ago, Mayor Brad Hart had a chance to meet with President Donald Trump. I am sure a few people in town rolled their eyes, just as I am sure a few people rolled their eyes when, as mayor, I met with President Barack Obama. Having political connections with elected officials and the various staff in agencies such as HUD, FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers, Homeland Security, Iowa Finance Authority all helped in the cleanup and rebuilding of Cedar Rapids.
Yes, politics can be messy, but not as messy as cleaning up after a 1,000-year flood.
To the flood affected people of Cedar Rapids, I say thank you. Your grit has been inspirational.
To the citizens, organizations, businesses who pitched in to sandbag, clean up and rebuild, congratulations on a successful recovery.
To the elected officials, staff and employees who serve the people of this nation, state, county and city. There is at least one person who knows the role you played in our success. Thank you.
• Ron Corbett is the former mayor of Cedar Rapids.