Fact: The 2008 Eastern Iowa flood ranks only behind Katrina and 9-11 as one of the most expensive U.S. national disasters.
Fact: On June 13th 2008 the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids Iowa crested at 31.12 feet almost 20 feet above flood stage and 11 feet above the record level set in 1993.
Fact: The waters covered over ten square miles of the city - far beyond the 100 and 500 year flood plains.
Fact: 5390 homes were damaged or destroyed. In the first weeks after the flood 25% of the homes in Cedar Rapids were uninhabitable.
Fact: 1,049 businesses were impacted.
Fact: 310 city facilities were damaged including Police Headquarters, the Central Fire Department, and the Central Library.
Fact: 21 government buildings were flooded including the County Court House, Federal Court House, and the Linn County Jail which were all forced to relocate.
Fact: 45 of the city's 46 clean water wells were compromised and non-functioning.
Fact: Current estimates put flood damage at ten billion dollars for the state of Iowa and six billion of that is in Cedar Rapids.
Fact: 580 Million dollars is what Cedar Rapids has been designated so far for flood recovery. After one year 81 million dollars has been received.
It was a year ago this week that the flood waters inundated our city. This is the place I have called home for most of my life and I don't remember it ever flooding while I was growing up. While Cedar Rapids like much of the midwest experienced 100 year flood levels in 1993 it was nothing like what happened here last year - just fifteen years later. This event has changed me and the way I look at things. In the past I watched stories about floods in other parts of the world and was saddened to see all of the destruction but then I'd move on and it was all quickly forgotten.
It wasn't until last year that I realized that it is after the water recedes and the news vans pull away that the real story of dismay, hope, fatigue, frustration, and perseverance begins. I learned that what they say is true, looking at it on television doesn't begin to tell the story. It is really so much worse in real life.
For one thing, the amount of debris left behind was unimaginable. This was not clean rain water. This water was infused with nitrates from farms up north and raw sewage. This was a river raging through our homes and businesses and stores at a rate 34 times faster than its normal flow. That kind of force would move buildings off of their foundations.
A side street in the downtown area in July 2008 a month after the water receded.
I drove around and took pictures in various places through out the city one month after the flood. The devastation was far reaching, overwhelming and sobering. It was immediately apparent that we would not recover from this quickly. It truly would be years and even then it would be a new normal. Someday I hope it will be better than before but I realize that home will never be the same. That is something that you just don't get unless you have lived this. It is one thing to see pictures of a flooded city on television or in a magazine or even on a blog, but when it strikes the places that you are familiar with, the coffee shop where you went on Saturday morning, the library you took your kids to, the theater where you first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then it hits you on an emotional level. Still, it often seems like this just couldn't be real and couldn't have happened here. We laugh and say nothing happens here, but in 2008 it did and now we are a city trying to rebuild and recover.
I was fortunate. Our house is quite a ways from the river and in a part of the city that was visually untouched. When people talk about the floods here they often refer to it as "a tale of two cities". From where we live everything appears the same. Our street is not lined with mounds of debris and the walls of the houses are not marked with a water line of sludge left by the muddy Cedar River. From where I live It is sometimes possible to forget that to the west this city is in crisis mode. This week, on the one year anniversary of the flood, I decided to head out again to document the progress and struggles of a city, my city, rebuilding.
I have read that 85% of the flooded out businesses in the downtown have now reopened but as I walked through this area I found that hard to believe. I had to think that most of those businesses that have returned must be on the upper floors because I still saw block after block of boarded up windows on the ground floor.
Still, there are signs of life. Most of these are in the form of delis and coffee shops that cater to the business lunch crowd but there are also some restaurants and bars returning to draw in nightlife.
Initially there were rumors that Smulekoff's, a downtown furniture store would not be returning after it took on eight to ten feet of water but come back it did. They miraculously reopened the upper floors of the store in November only five months after the flood. They are still working on refurbishing the ground floor. This is what it looked like in the middle of June 2008. The flood water came up to right under this awning. When the water pulled back it took much of the merchandise with it. I remember watching the news cast and seeing sofas floating down Third Avenue. It was surreal. Before this flood I never really thought about what everything looks like when the water finally goes down. Now I know and it isn't pretty.
This picture was taken looking in where one of the large windows had been. The water was flowing so fast that the windows were no match for it and they were all blown out.
But by June 2009 we had a success story. Not whole yet, but on its way.
The 85,000 square foot central branch of the Cedar Rapids Public Library was also located downtown. This building was decimated and will probably never reopen as a library. FEMA is still determining the structural integrity of the building. Inside, the entire first floor collection of almost 200,000 items was lost to the water. This is the single largest library disaster in U.S. history. The children's materials from the second floor, though, were able to be saved. A temporary library with a collection of 5,000 books and tapes opened this month in the Armstrong Center. Another small step forward.
The library as it looked at the crest of the flood. It is the building to the right with a flat roof and the triangular piece on top.
Views of the inside a few days after the crest. I also learned the water can take a long time to go back down.
The library this week. June 2009
A year later they are still trying to mitigate moisture from the building. Sad to see it looking so neglected and overgrown. The inside has been gutted back to the concrete.
This picture was put up on the internet for use by the library. I can't explain the flowers.
After touring the downtown area I went over to Czech Village another area of Cedar Rapids that was pummeled with flood waters.
The Sykora Bakery has reopened but many other businesses here have relocated, closed or are still waiting for loans or FEMA funding.
I thought this picture told a story. The Czech part of town has a long and vibrant history and the people that live here are very proud of their heritage and their village. I think it is great that they are planting flowers while many places still don't even have plumbing restored.
The pace of recovery for businesses has been quicker than for non-profits and residential properties.
The Czech and Slovak Museum, seen below, had water so high that it reached the bottom of the large crystal chandelier hanging in the central hall. The building will never house any of the museum artifacts again. Instead this building will hopefully be used as an educational and cultural center and a new museum will be built when the funds are available.
The clean up begins. July 2008
June 2009. Still closed and operating out of a small store front at Lindale Mall.
The most horrific part of a flood is the toll it takes on the people. Well over 5000 homes in Cedar Rapids alone were impacted by this epic flood. Even the record setting flood of 1993 didn't come anywhere near the devastation of the insidious waters of 2008. Not only did the river blow past the 100 year flood plain but it also climbed far beyond the 500 year flood plain into areas that had never seen water before.
As a result of that fact, most of the homes in the 500 year flood plain did not have flood insurance. It was not required because their chances of having a flood EVER were .2%. ( not 2%, point .2%) That is where this story becomes such a tragedy. I read about tornadoes, and earthquakes and fires and yes, the impact on the people that live through them is heart-wrenching. What I never gave much thought to before, though, is that when it comes to property loss, most of the people that suffer those catastrophes have insurance. Most of the people here did not.
Many have simply walked away, abandoning their homes. There are probably 1000 deserted homes in Cedar Rapids. For a city this size, that is a significant number.
Many are waiting for word from the city as to where the levies, flood walls and green space will be. Some families are waiting for inspectors to give them the go ahead to begin rebuilding. They are in construction and legal limbo. Even while their homes are uninhabitable, they must continue to pay taxes on their properties at their pre flood values.
Some are waiting for buyouts or financial aid. Sadly, the most FEMA will reward to a homeowner is $28,000 and the average payout is closer to $4,000. That will not begin to cover what these people have lost. The down economy has made these people victims yet again. Because of the current credit crisis bank loans are nearly impossible to come by. Without that money their lives are put on hold. The frustration is tangible.
Many of those who have begun to rebuild and have been able to get a loan have virtually doubled their debt and are in essence paying two mortgages. Still, some have taken on that risk and have worked feverishly to get back into their homes.
Last year when I took pictures I stayed away from the residential areas. It seemed okay to photograph our public buildings. They were places I had frequented. I had a history there. I belonged. The neighborhoods were different. I felt like an interloper. Now, a year later it all seems different. I believe there is a story to be told here. Iowans are proud people and they are reluctant to ask for help but some days it seems like the media and the government have forgotten that we are still here, still struggling, and still hurting. It has been the church groups and non-profits that have come to our aid. So far there are estimates of over 10,000 volunteers that have donated over 167,000 volunteer hours. We couldn't do this without them and for that we say thank you. Just this week my husband was flying home from Florida and he sat with a woman on the plane that was with Habitat for Humanity. She and 500 women like her were coming to Cedar Rapids during the week of the one year anniversary of the flood to help rebuild our community. When I hear things like that it makes me more than a bit emotional. In a world where we only seem to hear bad news, I am sometimes taken back by the goodness in people. Like the local retired electricians that have donated their time and the material to help homeowners rewire their homes free if charge. And I am so amazed and inspired by the strength and tenacity of the people here that call Cedar Rapids home. They make me proud to say I am from Iowa.
We will survive this. It's who we are and what we do.
If you found this the least bit interesting then please pass it on. We are a small city in a fly over state competing for limited dollars during a tough recession. It would be easy to forget or dismiss us but I hope you won't because there is still so much work to be done.