• Image about Cedar Rapids

ON THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE CATASTROPHIC FLOOD IN CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA, THE RESIDENTS OF THIS RESILIENT CITY ARE THINKING ABOUT ONLY ONE THING: THE FUTURE.


LEAH WILSON’S FOOTSTEPS echo through the gutted corridors of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML), which is perched on the banks of the Cedar River, one foot above the 100-year flood plain. It’s been almost a year since the worst flood in the history of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the NCSML -- arguably the most visible cultural icon in this vibrant center of agribusiness -- is empty except for an ancient printing press; a statue of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk; and 600 boxes of salvaged books.

Wilson, director of marketing and communications for the NCSML, remembers her first thought when she and other staffers were finally allowed into the structure after that fateful June weekend (which happened to begin on Friday the 13th) when the usually tranquil Cedar River crested at 31.12 feet -- an incredible 11.12 feet over the previous record of 20 feet, which had been set in 1851 and reached again in 1929.

“It felt hopeless,” Wilson recalls as she looks around at the empty display halls dusted with grit and sand. “It really did. I was walking into an utterly unrecognizable landscape. The smell itself knocked me off my feet. And to realize that this scene wasn’t relegated to a small part of the city either, that it consumed over 10 square miles -- I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of loss.”

The NCSML, which is responsible for bringing in 35,000 tourists a year and is an integral part of Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village neighborhood, was surrounded by 10 feet of water. Inside, the level of muddy river water reached eight feet. Afterward, an aerial photograph of the museum’s rooftop poking through the raging Cedar River became the defining image of the catastrophic Great Flood of 2008.

Ten square miles of this eastern-Iowa city of 126,000 people became inundated by flood waters, resulting in the displacement of 18,623 citizens and damage to more than 5,000 houses. While one water well was heroically saved, the entire city’s infrastructure was wiped out. Total cost of the destruction to Cedar Rapids was estimated at $5.9 billion. Amazingly, not a single loss of life was recorded.

The flood of 2008, which some are calling a 500-year flood or possibly even a 1,000-year flood, affected many Midwestern communities along the Mississippi River in both Missouri and Illinois. But Iowa was hit especially hard, with 83 of its 99 counties declared disaster areas. In an Iowa State University Extension paper titled “Economic Impacts of the 2008 Floods in Iowa,” authors grimly concluded the following: “Many households will not be made whole. Many governments will lose and not be able to replace important infrastructure or amenities. Many communities will lose part of their character or cohesion. And many people will be fed up and relocate.” But that was then. Today, the story is entirely different -- hopelessness has turned to hope.