The Difficult Decisions

It’s easy enough to see why communities originally developed near the water and why those communities have remained. It’s not easy to simply say, “OK, now we’re all going to relocate somewhere out of the flood plain.” But we should certainly consider if this is perhaps the time to make that move. A 100-year and a 500-year flood in 15 years? Over 3,000 houses were flooded in Cedar Rapids. Several neighborhoods–the Time Check area, the Czech Village, and the Normandy Drive area in Iowa City–were nearly completely destroyed. Over half the houses in the Time Check area, for instance, are not safe enough to enter.

This is a fact of life in many smaller towns along these rivers, as well, with whole communities washed away. In these regions, the dynamics are different. We as a society have said that we need to have the fertile floodplains farmed (whether this is a good policy or not is another debate); if we need to make floodplains productive then we do need to at least make reasonable efforts to afford those farmers the ability to live where they work (this is, of course a catch-22 as the process of making floodplains farmable actually alters the river’s dynamics that make it so fertile in the first place. But as I say this is another debate for another time). I’m not saying I necessarily buy our farming priorities, but I do recognize the economic dynamics of midwestern cropland; the issue is that the dynamics in these small towns is different from midwestern cities. There is no inherent reason to keep people living in regions such as the Time Check neighborhood other than the fact that people’s lives have been established and connected to the region. Many people have strong emotional ties and are ready to rebuild. I more than understand that. But can we afford to have people live there? These floods have really highlighted the sad state of Iowa’s infrastructure as a whole. Do we have the resources to rebuild in a way that will make any of these areas safe and functional?

Both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City governments are beginning to discuss buy-out options. These are very difficult decisions. What is ultimately needed is true leadership. The decision cannot be put off one way or another. Once people in those communities start rebuilding, it’s too late to truly have the conversation. Right now, there is a clean slate (so to speak). People may not like particular decisions, but they lose nothing in the process that they haven’t already lost. Once they rebuild, they will lose their homes twice. In both cities, the government needs to be willing to make some unpopular decisions and live by them.

I know that officials have been discussing these issues with officials from Grand Forks, ND. Grand Forks officials did a good job after the ’97 floods (I’m sure we all remember those haunting images of the city burning in the midst of floodwaters with no real way to stop the fires) of making intelligent but unpopular decisions and moving ahead quickly and decisively. It has taken ten years, but Grand Forks is now once again a vital city. Several neighborhoods were bought out and turned into green spaces by the river. I think this vision would serve Cedar Rapids really well. Most of all, though, it’s the decisive leadership that our officials should emulate from Grand Forks. Grand Forks offers a glimpse of what it will take and how long it will take if we are going to get past this disaster. Yes, people are going to be unhappy pretty much whatever you do, but that’s the nature of the beast at this point. Waiting on some of these decisions will only make it worse.

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