Floods of 2008 Revisited

It was 5 years ago today that flood waters crested in Cedar Rapids Iowa during the historic flood of ’08. Here were my thoughts at the time. Originally posted a month later on 8-13-08.

A winter of near-record snowfalls here in Iowa, gave way to a spring in which we had our biggest tornado since 1976, wiping one town off the map and killing 7 people. Then, in July, Iowa saw its worst flooding since the Genesis deluge. This year’s immoderate weather has given me ample reminder of why I hate Iowa. The response of Iowans has reminded me why I love it.

Flood waters on the Cedar River first hit the cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, knocking down bridges and flooding downtown areas. It then hit smaller towns like Vinton and Palo, flooding nearly the entire town, and lumbered onward toward the population center of Cedar Rapids.

Not to be outdone by rising flood waters, an Iowa twister suddenly lashed out, tearing through a Boy Scout camp, killing 4 young scouts and sending many more to the hospital.

Flood waters crept up on downtown Cedar Rapids engulfing first the “100 year flood plain,” then the “500 year flood plain.” Sandbagging the downtown area quickly proved to be futile and it was surrendered to the river. More than 3,900 homes had to be evacuated, creating over 24,000 homeless evacuees. Over 1300 city blocks were submerged under a river crest of 31.8 feet. (Flood stage is 12 feet.)

Damage to Iowa’s lifeblood of crops was estimated at $2.7 billion. Property damages in Cedar Rapids alone were estimated at $736 million. Many talking heads on TV compared the Iowa floods to Hurricane Katrina.

There is one big difference between the two disasters though: Unlike New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and their ilk, our local officials didn’t stand there wringing their hands, wondering what George Bush was going to do about it. When the flood waters came, local officials, non-profit organizations and private citizens alike all rolled up their sleeves and did what they could.

When Cedar Rapids’ last remaining fresh-water pumping station was in danger of being engulfed the city asked for volunteer sandbaggers through the local media. 600 to 1000 volunteers arrived en-mass, so many that most had to be turned away. (Actually they were sent to help evacuate the hospital.) On the news, I saw people being rescued from flood waters in private bassboats and motorized duck blinds. People were so busy helping their neighbors that they plumb forgot to loot.

In my own small town, the municipal water-treatment plant was nearly swamped. City leaders asked for help sandbagging. I took off work early and when I arrived at the fire station at 1 p.m. the work was already done and the numerous volunteers had been sent home.

Many of the small towns affected called out their biggest asset: unpaid, volunteer firefighters, who quickly changed their job description to floodfighters. Local police and county emergency personnel served admirably, as did the Iowa National Guard. Churches and non-profit groups like the Salvation Army sprang into action, setting up shelters for evacuees and feeding the masses.

FEMA was on hand, to be sure, offering whatever assistance it could, and U.S. Coast Guard rescue crews helped survivors. But it was clear that LOCAL officials were running the show. It’s called federalism, Mayor Nagin. Look into it.

All in all I’m pretty proud of how my fellow Iowans handled the worst of times. Iowa may not have mountains or oceans, we may not have celebrity or diversity, we may not have Broadway lights or the Vegas Strip, and we may not have the French Quarter, but we’ve got good folks in these parts. That’s good enough.

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