I have read a disturbing number of articles and blogs that are attempting to make comparisons between the Iowa floods and New Orleans after Katrina. The argument goes that Iowa has handled this disaster in the way that New Orleans should have: Iowans have pulled together and are working through it while New Orleans folks merely whined. This is such a bogus and disturbing argument I just don’t know where to begin. The swath of devastation from Katrina was vastly larger than the Iowa floods. We also have had no loss of life in Iowa, thank God. But there are two primary issues for me: first, New Orleanians had a reason to complain about the length of time it took FEMA and others to arrive with help, and the incredible mismanagement of such help. In contrast, FEMA was on the scene the day of these floods. If anything, this shows that at least some lessons have been learned through Katrina. I’d also suggest, though, that the portrayal of Iowa nice here doesn’t ultimately hold up. I watched a painful City Council meeting in which citizens called the council racist and classist and claimed they were attempting to bankrupt them. The problem is that even if we have voted the council in based on experience, no council in any city is really prepared to deal with this scope of crisis. Now, I don’t mean to denigrate Iowans here. On the whole, I think the depiction is correct. People have pulled together to an amazing degree; I just don’t buy into this Iowa good, New Orleans bad depiction that I’m hearing these days. One interesting comparison I might make between the two cities is that the most heavily damaged areas were working-class, poorer neighborhoods. If anything, those who are making the argument against New Orleans ought to ask why FEMA was able to get into our white, eastern European neighborhoods immediately while it took so long to get into New Orleans’ primarily black neighborhoods. I’m not trying to add fuel to some racial fire here, but if you’re going to point out the flaws in New Orleans’ response to their crisis, you need to acknowledge that their are different ways to consider the “objective” events. We always need to paint the full picture.

On a different front, I spent some time doing salvage work with the Legion Arts building, one of Cedar Rapids’ primary cultural centers. While the devastation on the main floor and in the firehouse (which was under renovation to serve as artist housing and work space) was heartbreaking, I’m also happy to say that the building is still structurally sound and the primary art gallery and performance space on the 2nd floor were mostly untouched. When power returns to the neighborhood (they’re now predicting early August), Legion Arts can get back up and running. Some photos of the building and the neighborhood might also give you a sense of the scope of clean-up projects. Here is the building before the flood. The sandbags would have kept the building safe based on the 1993 floods which did not touch the door and based on the projections that were in play up until the day before the crest:

The reality of the flood, however, was that water made it up to the address numbers on the top window. Here is the post-flood scene:

And here is the scene as ruined debris were pulled from the building:

Here are a few pictures of the remains of 40 years of art work by Mel Andringa. Mel was using the firehouse as a studio and storage while it was renovated as an artist studio for out of town artists:

You’ll notice what look like puzzle pieces, and well they are puzzle pieces. Mel uses puzzles for his art. It’s a shame to lose all this work, but he seems to be keeping his spirits about him and is looking forward to getting Legion Arts up and running again. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of salvaging in a flood-ravaged building, here are a few internal shots from the firehouse:

Notice the thickness of the sludge everywhere. It’s hot, nasty, smelly, and quite toxic work, but Iowans are in fact pulling together and going through this building by building, house by house. I don’t mean for my earlier comment to suggest otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the ridiculous and pointedly political comparisons made with New Orleans. Me, I’m just looking for a return of the Legion Arts as a sign of the return of Cedar Rapids.

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  1. LatinTeacher Says:

    As someone who is from New Orleans and was there for Katrina, thank you for your words. Most every one of us feels compassion and empathy for the plight of Iowans and the unfortunate who flooded. We know what hard and heart-wrenching work lies ahead. I helped a wonderful lady and artist empty the home she was renting. She lost everything she had and had absolutely no insurance to help her out. We spent much of the afternoon decorating a lonely crepe myrtle with whatever dry materials we could find. Art finds a way. God speed.

  2. DallasMatt Says:

    >>>If anything, those who are making the argument against New Orleans ought to ask why FEMA was able to get into our white, eastern European neighborhoods immediately while it took so long to get into New Orleans’ primarily black neighborhoods<<<

    Maybe because they were getting shot at?

  3. GJF Says:

    Well Dallas Matt, maybe that’s true but much support of such shootings were shown to be overblown by the media. But regardless, it still took longer to get people into the area than it did to get people into Iowa. In some ways, the argument here is backwards: the anger and rage were a response to slow government reaction rather than FEMA being slow because of anger and rage. And I’m not talking about the people on the ground who did yeoman’s work in an incredibly difficult situation; I’m talking about the bureaucracy that never took control of the situation with the urgency it required. As Terry Ebbert, New Orleans Homeland Security Director said: “This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”

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