Today I'm not writing about a decorating or painted furniture project. I will be back with something along that vein next time. To be timely this post needed to be written now. My heart goes out to those in the gulf area and to those areas that were flooded earlier this month. I'd like to think that what I write today might help give someone that has been affected by such an event the knowledge and hope that we are a resilient and determined nation and that we do eventually work through these tragedies. It isn't government alone that gets us through difficult times. We help ourselves and we help each other. A little plus a little gets things done.
Block By Block in Cedar Rapids
It was two years ago this week that our city suffered through this state's worst natural disaster and one of the most expensive in the country.
Cedar Rapids and Iowa City which is just twenty minutes to our south received the most damage.
We aren't big cities.
Most people couldn't locate us on a map.
Still, this is the place I call home.
The abandoned homes and boarded up businesses are depressing to see.
Still, we are fiercely proud of what we have here.
We took a huge hit and we are surviving.
It was called an epic flood.
In fact, the flood waters covered ten square miles of Cedar Rapids.
This was our downtown area.
No, this is definitely not a "poor us" type of blog post.
Instead I would like to share some of the success stories that we as a city are slowly beginning to chalk up.
I'd like to say it's hard to believe it's already been two years but that wouldn't be true.
Some days it feels like forever.
I have never been patient
and I am learning that recovery is a long and tedious process.
Yet, despite a stubbornly repressed economy, our downtown area is finally showing some signs of promise and a pulse.
only twenty months after it was devastated by the flood waters Theatre Cedar Rapids returned to its gloriously refurbished home in the Iowa Building.
This was TCR at the height of the flood in June 2008.
The sandbags couldn't keep the muddy waters out and this is what the river left behind.
You can see the seats caked in mud and silt and an orchestra pit still filled with water and muck.
The motto at TCR was, "The show must go on" and go on it did. The productions were temporarily moved to a different venue. Countless volunteer hours, a combination of private donations and grants, and a determined spirit resulted in the reopening of this theater in February of this year.
The excitement was tangible.
and the theater was gorgeous.
The night we saw the play we later walked down the block to Zin's.
It was great.
The downtown felt alive.
Zin's is a tappas restaurant that was forced to close its doors at 4:15 PM on June 11th 2008 as the waters were rapidly inching up Second Avenue.
The restaurant was decimated by the flood.
Even so, one year to the day
at exactly 4:15
it reopened it's doors to an eager and celebratory group of diners.
Zin's was back.
They just last week celebrated their one year anniversary ... again at exactly 4:15.
I wish we had been in town on Friday. I would have loved to have been there to toast their achievement.
Those of us that live here are beginning to feel a bit more positive about the survival of our downtown but it is still an uphill battle.
As I took a walking tour around this area I still saw a lot of boarded up stores and business fronts.
I was heartened, though, to see new ventures popping up.
and some old familiars returning.
Or maybe relocating.
Every one of the government facilities in Cedar Rapids was impacted by this flood including our Federal Court House.
This was the court house as it appeared at the crest of the flood in 2008.
Cedar Rapids had been on the short list to get a new court house for several years but the flood pushed this city to the top of that list and funding was approved in 2009.
The new courthouse is under construction now. The target completion date is summer 2012, four years after the flood.
Czech Village, a unique ethnic settlement within Cedar Rapids, was also pounded by flood waters.
The Czech Museum still stands empty but there are ingenious plans in the works to move and elevate the entire building across the street to higher ground.
It could not reopen at its current location as a museum because it would be uninsurable.
This was the museum in June 2008
and as it sits today two years later.
For now the workable solution has been a move into a refurbished historical building in the Czech Village. An exhibit has been put in place in this new location called "Rising Above" detailing the events of the 2008 flood and its impact on this part of Cedar Rapids.
These were some pictures I took of Czech Village only a month after the flood.
These images are from Czech Village earlier this week. Two full years later.
It looks great doesn't it?
It's true. There is still a lot of work to be done but you can see the progress.
The people here are working class people.
A large number that still live here are of Czech heritage.
They don't sit back and wait for a hand out.
They take care of themselves and they take care of each other.
The other part of the story though is not about the stores or factories, restaurants or churches.
The other part of the story,
the part that is harder to tell
and harder to resolve involves the homeowners.
5390 homes were damaged in the floods.
Whole neighborhoods were destroyed.
Many of these homes were condemned.
Others were tagged uninhabitable until repairs and renovations were made.
Countless homeowners lacked the resources to make those repairs
and they walked away.
This left a large number of abandoned or vacant homes within the city limits.
I walked through an area of town yesterday that is called the Time Check neighborhood. This is an older part of town that was lined with the homes of working class families.
It was numbing to still see block after block after block of empty houses.
They were just shells and crumbling structures.
It is so hard yet to believe that this happened here, in our city.
Finally this year Cedar Rapids got the go ahead to begin demolishing a number of these houses.
I stood in a misty rain yesterday and watched as a backhoe ate its way through yet another home until it was nothing but a pile of crumbled plaster and wood.
I know there is a story and a family behind each and every empty house
and there are just so many of them.
Then there are also those occasional oasis houses in the middle of all of this ghostly devastation.
They are a sight for sore eyes but they oddly just seem so out of place.
Isn't this just so cheerful and homey?
Looking at this image today you would never guess what this pretty house and it's owners have gone through.
Kudos to the families that brought these two houses back to life so colorfully.
Tragically, though, these homes are almost always flanked by this
or this -
an empty lot where the house has already been demolished and the debris hauled away.
Without neighbors you can't have a neighborhood.
Too many of us have learned to believe that the government will fix all that is wrong for us.
It isn't so.
There is too little money and too much red tape.
You have to think beyond what you have believed to be true.
To have the initiative to not sit back and wallow in what has happened.
It isn't fair.
Your neighbor needs help?
This philosophy is what I had the pleasure of seeing here this week and it moved me to tears of realization and gratitude for the kindness of friends and strangers.
There is an effort underway in Cedar Rapids called Block by Block.
Block by Block is a grassroots program that is helping homeowners and their neighbors recover and rebuild one block at a time.
The seed money first came from a local couple and then corporate and private donations and grants followed.
This money paired with donated materials and literally throngs of volunteers from all across the country who are gifting themselves and an awe inspiring number of humanitarian hours are the reason this effort is so successful.
At least 60% of the houses on a block must agree to participate in the rebuilding.
Some homeowners are rebuilding to stay while others are rebuilding in order to be able to sell their homes and move on.
Block by Block helps these homeowners by offering assistance in the securing of funding, by bringing in volunteers, and by supplying donated materials.
Sometimes there is an abandoned home or a homeowner that doesn't want to participate.
Then Block by Block will take that house on itself and make the repairs.
It will sell the home at before flood values and the profits are put back into the program to help spur the effort forward.
In 2009 eight blocks were rebuilt.
In 2010 the goal is to complete sixteen blocks.
I turned a corner yesterday while driving through this neighborhood and came upon one of these block projects.
I talked briefly with a couple of the volunteers. One was from San Francisco and another from the Portland area.
This woman was from southern Florida.
It was truly inspiring to see the enthusiasm, the energy and the sense of community here.
To watch as these dedicated individuals working as a unit to take a block like this one
and bring it back to something like this.
House by house and block by block.
It is miraculous what we can do together.
The volunteers have come from every state, from every religious denomination, from all age groups and from colleges far and wide.
Cedar Rapids can never thank them enough.
Someday we will be whole again
and it will be our turn
to offer a helping hand.
We will be ready to give back.
image of tee shirt with quote taken from St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church website
images of TCR off of TCR website