The whims of Mother Nature tested Cedar Rapids 10 summers ago when the river banks overflowed, flooding 10 square miles of neighborhoods, businesses and homes and causing more than $10 billion in damage. Natural disasters test the mettle of humanity. By every measure, Iowans were tested in 2008.
Ten years ago, 88 of 99 counties were declared a natural disaster. Epic floods and E-5 tornadoes ripped holes through the center of many neighborhoods. Thanks to civic leadership and a bootstrap mentality, tireless volunteers and members of the National Guard answered the call to survive and thrive from the crisis. The rallying cry to rebuild and recover began a decadelong drive to restore and revitalize Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities.
It was a tough row to hoe. Orchestrating the massive cleanup is one thing. Paying for it is another. Congress approved nearly $800 million in federal block grants within the first year to help homeowners with restoration and buyout efforts. However, the wheels of the federal bureaucracy too often are painstakingly restrictive to navigate. From Housing and Urban Development, to FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, local residents got a firsthand taste of federal alphabet soup. When community leaders, businesses and homeowners became mired in bureaucratic molasses, I worked with our entire Iowa congressional delegation to take care of immediate needs and help develop long-term planning for the flood plain, such as levee improvements and flood protection systems to avert future catastrophe. In addition to directing federal disaster assistance to recovery and rebuilding efforts, I wrote the Heartland Disaster Tax Relief Act to give flood-ravaged homeowners and businesses a fresh start. Just as Congress acted to help the victims from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I made sure Midwesterners received a much-needed break.
Moving forward after a natural disaster isn’t easy.
Volunteers affirmed Iowa’s treasured heritage of neighbor helping neighbor, rescuing residents and pets from flood-ravaged neighborhoods. Voters approved a local-option sales tax. City planners developed a strategy to revitalize Cedar Rapids. Recovery efforts stumbled along the way, to be sure. It takes time to see sunshine after the city’s worst disaster in history. Collaborating and finding consensus isn’t easy. Despite the incalculable loss of personal belongings blended with the physical, emotional and financial toll of starting over, the people of Cedar Rapids didn’t quit. Just one of the rays of sunshine shining brightly 10 years later is Czech Village, a reflection of the grit and perseverance of the entire community.
Working alongside civic and state leaders for the last decade, we have identified specific needs and places where red tape gets in the way to improve flood protection in local communities. When it comes to natural disasters, there’s no room for assigning blame or taking credit, partisanship or bureaucratic turf wars to darken the door of protecting public safety.
That’s why I have worked alongside former Sen. Tom Harkin and now Sen. Joni Ernst and the rest of the Iowa delegation to ensure local infrastructure needs get up to snuff, including flood risk projects on the Cedar River and elsewhere.
This month, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works approved a bill that once again highlights the importance of the Cedar River flood protection project and includes specific provisions that could lead to construction funds for this project and cut red tape and improve public input, transparency and accountability.
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The people of Cedar Rapids have earned a well-deserved salute to civic participation. It’s a good day to share pride with your fellow citizens. Thanks to your resilience and hard work, even better days are yet to come.
• Chuck Grassley is a Republican U.S. senator from Iowa.