We went to see the photo exhibit of the 2008 Iowa floods in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. The photos were in the Gazette, so I’d seen most of them, but it was pretty impressive to see them in large scale en masse. Brought back a lot of emotions from the time and was a good reminder of how far this town still has to go to recover. Gov. Chet Culver has been praised for his fast and decisive actions, and I just don’t get it. This is the guy that absolutely refused to call a special session of the legislature and so now in session we’re still waffling with funding issues. With the national economic crisis it only gets worse. Sorry folks, my sense is that the Iowa government has done fairly close to nothing to make sure that recovery money is getting to the folks who need it. And some of the overhead shots in the photo display really are good reminders of just how much of this town was affected. Miles and miles of submerged housing and businesses. Many of the shots are still on the gazette site. It’s not like seeing them in wall-sized displays, but still a good reminder. Try here or here.
Archive for the ‘Flooding’ Category
Yesterday was a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect July weather. I took some pictures of our raspberry patch that’s really filling in after 3 years, and our flower gardens that are really coming into full bloom. I had every intention, then, of writing a nice summery post, show off the gardens, describe our wonderful grilled veggie, orzo, feta and herb dinner last night and talk beer. But this morning I read this really distressing news from post-flood world.
I have written quite a few times about Legion Arts in downtown Cedar Rapids, really the best thing going about this town. I had also posted some pictures of the building and was happy to report that the art gallery and performance space on the second floor were basically unharmed by the floods. This included thousands of dollars in sound equipment. If the building is structurally sound (it appears so but the final verdict isn’t in) and electricity can be restored, they could be up and running pretty quickly. The salvage work on the businesses on the first floor, though, apparently left the building unprotected. Yesterday, thieves used a gap where walls had to be torn down to steal $14,000 of sound equipment. Sure, they are insured and will be able to get back on their feet, but this just astounds me. The neighborhood is a complete disaster area and thieves are seeing it as opportunity. Legion Arts has always run on a shoestring and the hard work of countless volunteers. Directors Mel Andringa and John Herbert have put their lives into keeping this place afloat for over 20 years. As the centerpiece of the new Bohemian Arts District, it was the cornerstone of a new vision for Cedar Rapids before the flood and will be the anchor of whatever might come after the flood. And this is what it comes down to.
I’m mad. I’m sad. And I’m a bit scared of what this bodes for the future as these “opportunities” will be here for many months in this city. Right after the flood, the city was shocked by the news that vandals had broken into the children’s zoo in Bever Park and rounded up 50 ducks of a variety of species from the duck pond, herded them into the corner and stoned them to death. It was just stunning to think of what bad can lurk even in the worst of times (you know, when we all point to tragedy as the point when we come together and the good in people shows up). Nothing like kicking people when they’re down. I was happy to see the community response to that event, and hope there is a similar outcry and public assistance for Legion Arts.
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:
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.
A few posts back, I had discussed the need for quick, decisive action on the part of local leaders following the Iowa floods. I am happy to see that discussions of possible neighborhood buyouts are moving fairly quickly. Over 4,000 homes were completely flooded in Cedar Rapids and officials are upgrading the number of unsalvageable homes daily. This community can not sustain such a disaster and to rebuild in these areas is short-sighted. I am especially amazed to learn the percentage of homes and businesses that were completely without flood insurance–even in the so-called 100-year zone which had been hit in ’93. While affected homeowners would actually end up financially hurt by a buyout (the actual payments would hardly afford them a new home, if even pay off mortgages), they generally see that this is the smart thing to do and are willing to pursue buyout plans. What they most want across the board is to know one way or the other so that they do not have to put their lives on hold more than necessary.
I had pointed to Grand Forks, North Dakota as a model of efficient leadership following the floods of ’97. I was happy to see an editorial from Grand Forks mayor and city council President in Sunday’s Gazette. They pointed out that a community must forget about “normal”; it won’t be back. But with bold, and certainly controversial, leadership a new normal can be developed. I do not envy city leaders right now as there will be no good decisions. People will be frustrated in whatever direction we move; emotions will understandably run high with all of these decisions. But move we must, and I’m happy to see that our local officials seem to be taking this to heart.
What I am not so happy about is to see that our State leaders do not seem to be taking this to heart. Here, too, I will echo and support a Gazette editorial: these floods have highlighted a disastrous state of infrastructure in this state and pose serious questions of recovery process that need to be addressed immediately. It’s sad to see that the call for a special session to address the flooding is being ignored. The State legislature understandably wants Federal money to come to the rescue, but this does not mean that decisive leadership is not also needed at the State level. We can not wait for Federal money to handle this, and we certainly can’t wait for a post-election session. Any money that does come in will still need to be allocated, and allocated quickly. We need a system of prioritizing in place now, and we need a plan to come up with the funds that the state will certainly be asked to contribute to recovery. The need for an ambitious special session seems unquestionable to me. If nothing else, people will feel better if they know their legislature is working on their behalf while they wade through the muck and slime to recover what little of their lives is left. Come on folks, this is what leadership is all about! This is what we voted for; now is the worst time to pass the buck.
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.
I wanted to mention one more organization that is really hurting and could use some donations. The Cedar Rapids Community Health Free Clinic does amazingly good work in downtown Cedar Rapids serving over 22,000 patients over the last year, all of whom have incomes below $15,000. Predictions are that this number will rise dramatically over the next year as some 7 to 10,000 people are projected to lose their jobs due to the flood. The Clinic survives almost solely on individual donations, so this is another organization I really encourage donations for. If you are interested, please take a look at their website:
Today I got my first real sense of what business and homeowners will be facing. I helped people salvage what they could from houses that flooded up to the 2nd floor. The experience is incredibly heart-wrenching and images don’t really do it justice. Outside, there are lawnmowers and furniture in the trees; appliances are strewn in ditches and everything is coated with inches of pure muck. Inside, a house’s contents are flung wherever and thick, gunky, moldy muck is over everything. The smells are horrendous. And these were houses in small neighborhoods several miles from the river. It’s just unbelievable to try to imagine the miles and miles of homes that are facing these conditions. Many are unsafe to even walk in as basements are collapsing and floors are rotting. Most of the houses I saw are completely gone. And now the floodwaters are moving down into the far southeast corner of the state and on to the Mississippi.
I had mentioned in my last post that I would try to list some places that are worthy of donations. I will say at the start that the Red Cross disaster funds are currently depleted. The Red Cross will have to borrow money to offer relief for the Iowa floods. So more than ever they seem like a good place to support. Locally, the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation has opened up a Flood 2008 fund. These funds will support non-profits in Linn County and help with specific flood relief projects. Donations can be sent to PO Box 9, Marion Iowa, 52302. These funds seem like the most wide-reaching ways to put money into Iowa recovery.
A few other options for less-visible but important groups to support:
First, the Legion Arts group has started a fund for low-income artists and musicians who live in the area. Legion Arts has really been a mainstay for cultural development in cedar rapids and their efforts here should really be supported. If you are interested, I’d suggest you go to their website at LegionArts.org. It is uncertain how much damage the legion arts center and stage sustained at this point. You might use this website to track the center itself as I am sure they will need funds to maintain this incredibly important fixture of cedar rapids life.
Second, I have talked with many people about the amazing number of rescued animals and pets who are being housed at this point. This is an often neglected side of such tragedies and, if you are interested, funds can be sent to the Kirkwood Foundation, c/o Friends of the Cedar Rapid Animal Shelter, Kirkwood Community College, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids, 52406
Finally, an issue after my own heart. One of the great things about Cedar Rapids is its parks and trails system. Many of the trails have been completely washed away. This system was already in serious financial difficulty, to the point that I have trouble imagining this trail system returning to its old self, let alone expanding as the city hoped. If you want to contribute to the trails system, I would suggest you look at Linn County Trails Association at linncountytrails.org. I recognize that this may seem like a secondary issue at this point, but it’s things like hiking and biking that help give a place character and feel alive, something this area will need in the years to come.
I think the extent of these floods is just starting to become clear to people. It will take a long time to wake from the daze and see the long road ahead. Any help along the way will be more than appreciated.
As always, whatever your situation and place, take care of each other.
The waters are receding in Cedar Rapids and the Iowa River has crested in Iowa City (earlier and lower than predicted–at least a bit of good news amid the rest). So, now the long, painful road to recovery begins. The latest estimate of damages in the area is close to 2 billion. And this apparently doesn’t even factor in the loss of cropland for this year which in many areas will be a total loss.
The city began to allow people back into their homes after an inspection but this proved a longer and more complicated process than anyone imagined. After further inspection they have decided that neighborhoods are too dangerous at this point and all entry into flooded houses has been denied. People are understandably upset and nerves are frayed; on the other hand, I believe that the authorities are indeed acting in everyone’s best interests. At least from the limited images we get, flooded areas seem like toxic nightmares to me. One report I saw on the news urged people who were able to get to their houses not to pump water from basements too quickly as the pressure would make the walls collapse–this is certainly something I wouldn’t have been aware of and I can’t imagine how many people are ready to rush in and start pumping. We fortunately got through this with few injuries; now seems like the time when injuries would start piling up. I don’t have answers to how to handle this, but I can see the need for caution here. That said, I am speaking as an outsider. My house was not flooded and I can only imagine the emotions welling up in the floods’ victims. For the homeowners and the authorities alike, the next few weeks will prove a vexed existence.
I am taking stock of organizations that are offering services and aid to the victims and to the city. I will post them shortly to this site should anyone feel inclined to contribute to particular efforts. As we know with the all-too-frequent disasters recently, though, the Red Cross is always a worthy avenue to funnel funds to those in need. I will give updates as we go, though, on other opportunities to help.
So, here’s a few more images of Cedar Rapids:
It’s hard to know how this is playing in the media outside, what images and stories are making it into the larger world, but I hope it’s big. No, this is no Katrina with its horrible loss of life and there are no real political stories here (at least yet), but this is utter devastation. And the horrifying part is that the Iowa River hasn’t come close to cresting yet. Here in Cedar Rapids, the Cedar River is now starting to recede but it will be at least a week before it completely recedes; drinking water is at a critically low level and thousands will be without power for over a week. But we at least can see the extent of the flooding. In Iowa City, the extent is not quite fathomable yet. Both cities will reach record flooding that far surpasses the 1993 floods. Here in Cedar Rapids, the flood waters were a good 10 feet beyond original predictions. 2008 was named “The Year of the River,” a year to revitalize our downtown and turn to the river as its cornerstone. Little did we know that it would truly become the year of the river. The road to revitalization now is a long and tenuous road at best. The Paramount Theater, Theater Cedar Rapids, Legion Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the University, Hancher Theater all under water. Small businesses gone. Jobs evaporating. Whole neighborhoods of poor and working class citizens completely flooded out. Yes, the mantra is “we will get through this together,” but the realist in me doesn’t know what “getting through” in this context will really mean.
OK, so I’ve never shown any hesitation to discuss my ambivalence about living in Cedar Rapids, or Iowa in general. But I have to say that this truly breaks my heart:
This town has been really struggling financially and this could well break its back. It’s also really frustrating to be able to do nothing. Sure, I can sandbag with the best of them, but it seems to have done nothing. I would go help with sandbagging in Iowa City–which is due to be hit even worse next week with the entire University under the gun–but I can’t even get there now. Highways are closed down, bridges under water. This stuff hits you right in the heart, and I wish there was something we could do besides wait mother nature out.