THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT the flood has left an indelible mark. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers are scattered throughout the city. Block after block of abandoned homes remain in working-class neighborhoods like Time Check, Little Bohemia, and the aforementioned Czech Village. But with the kind of can-do mentality Iowa is famous for, Cedar Rapids is slowly coming back. A billboard on Interstate 380 serves as a rallying cry, stating, Below this sign a great city is rebuilding.
Having just returned from visiting Iowas congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., mayor of Cedar Rapids Kay Halloran -- whose entire office and staff are still displaced because of the flood -- points to encouraging signs of recovery but also realizes that more federal aid will be needed.
Our delegation is well aware of our needs, and they are not unsympathetic, Halloran says. Were making [major] progress, but its hard to make eye-popping progress without a significant infusion of federal money. Given the fact that the economy has tanked, its very difficult to get buckets of money.
Downtown is coming back slowly. We cheer every time a business reopens that has been closed. Most of our major employers who were impacted have reopened, but theyve reopened on a limited, temporary basis. In the meantime, our commercial recovery is moving ahead. Cedar Rapids is a large center for agri-industries like Quaker Oats and Cargill, so we dont want the customers of agri-industries to think were out of commission -- because we arent.
One of the silver linings of the flood has been the emergence of a new generation of city leaders to work alongside lifelong residents such as Halloran.
Shannon Meyer accepted the job as president of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce -- the same office that had named 2008 the Year of the River months before those words took on an ironic twist -- this past December knowing the type of yeomans work that awaited her in eastern Iowa.
Pretty crazy, huh? Meyer asks with a laugh from her downtown office. I moved from Florida to Iowa on December 1 to a flooded community. Many friends said I had lost every bit of sanity I once had. I came in to it knowing full well that this was going to be an extreme challenge. But it was my way to really get involved and give back to a community.
According to Meyer, more than 700 businesses in downtown Cedar Rapids were impacted by the flood and some 8,000 people were dislocated from their jobs. And the rising cost of energy has further affected businesses here. An antiquated steam power plant was destroyed during the flood, and its users now depend on temporary boilers to produce their steam energy. As a result, downtown businesses have seen their energy costs rise by a factor of five or more. The Chamber of Commerce itself saw its bill rise from $3,865 from September 2007 to March 2008 to $20,602 during the same span one year later.
Not only do we have the challenge of the flood and the typical economic loss that goes with that -- businesses not being open, the construction costs of getting back up and running -- but we also have unforeseen costs that are now coming up, Meyer says. Yet she sees positive signs of recovery every day. Meyers office is the administrator of Jump Start, a state program that helps businesses get back on their feet with cash grants. As of March 1 of this year, Jump Start had awarded more than $12 million to 502 businesses. Meyer says that when the owners come in for their checks, they often have tears in their eyes.
There are small businesses coming back every day. Thats the Iowa mentality. People here are absolutely resilient. They will not fail. They know that they want their businesses to come back and to come back better than ever. Weve got commitments from our large industries here. They are not going anywhere. They dont want to leave. They love the Cedar Rapids area.
And weve got large [local] corporations such as Rockwell Collins and Aegon that werent physically flooded but that have really stepped up and contributed significant amounts of dollars and professional experience. Volunteer hours from Rockwell Collins and Aegon total in the tens of thousands.
One of the professionals whos offered his experience is Christian Fong, head of real estate capital markets for Aegon. Another example of Cedar Rapids emerging young leaders, Fong devoted 40 hours per week to flood-relief work during the peak months of the relief effort, and he continues to devote 20 hours per week now. He was also instrumental in setting up and launching the Corridor Recovery website, www.corridorrecovery.org
, which is the official informational website for all flood-related matters. The Iowa native, who holds an MBA from Dartmouth College, says, If its a flood-related matter and its not on Corridor Recovery, then its not official.
Fong took flood victims Troy and Beverly Simon, fellow parishioners at the River of Life Church, into his home after they lost their house to the flood. He explains that the recovery process is about carefully managing hope while staying vigilant to avoid the eventual burnout that will occur from endless 18-hour days. He says Grand Forks, North Dakota, saw 80 percent of its public and faith leadership quit or retire following that citys 1997 flood.
But Cedar Rapids is coming back. Fong cites the African American Museum of Iowas reopening on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past January as a victory for hope. And there now exists a high level of civic engagement in the city, he says.
Were proud of [our rebuilding]. Its a source of civic pride, how badly we were hit and how quickly weve come back. And thats whats defining our city, Fong continues. The number one business indicator is compassion, and our compassion index is off the charts.
For the Simons, the recovery remains a slow slog of paperwork, bureaucracy, and perpetual heartbreak. Their remodeled bungalow along the Cedar River was in a 500- year flood plain. It now awaits demolition, an entire tree -- origin unknown -- sticking out of its window as a vivid reminder of the force of the 2008 flood.
Troy remembers gathering what family treasures he could rescue in a small pile and including, for some still unknown reason, a game of Clue. As the rain relentlessly poured down in torrents, he finally got on his knees and cried out, Please stop! Within hours, the house and all their possessions were gone.
Now, almost a year later, he and Beverly have moved out of the Fongs home and into an apartment on the river, within a mile of their former home. Although they admit its a bit scary to be away from the Fong family and on their own again, the location of their new home is intentional. They love the river.
We wouldnt live anywhere else in Cedar Rapids, Troy says. We had a place that people envied when they drove by. It was so tranquil out there. There were times when we would have 20 to 30 deer at one time and 15 to 20 turkeys. We had birds galore.
The flood has drawn the couple even closer to one another. We realized what is truly important in life, Beverly says.
And, in typical Iowa fashion, the Simons have also not missed one mortgage payment on the house they will never live in again.
AS FOR THE NATIONAL CZECH
& Slovak Museum & Library, the beautiful landmark structure will no longer be the museums home. Sometime in early fall, the NCSML will relocate part of its operations down the street to the historic Kosek building, which is in the heart of the Czech Villages main business district. There will be a new exhibit, appropriately titled Rising Above: The Story of a People and the Flood, that will include as its centerpiece a walk-in model of a flooded house.
Wilson, who credits the vision of the exhibit to her director, Gail Naughton, says that this is a great opportunity to interpret history as it is being made.
Gail has all the staff chanting, A museum is more than the bricks and mortar, Wilson says, pausing as a construction worker walks by. I guess the thing that inspires me the most is the dedication that the people of our museum have shown to our neighborhood. If it were just about our buildings, things would move more quickly. But what we see here is an opportunity to help our Czech neighborhoods and our greater community to come back stronger, and weve already taken our first steps.
STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys and A View from the Inland Northwest: Everyday Life in America. His book on Cedar Rapids and the flood of 2008, The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption along the Mississippi River, will be published in the fall of 2010 by Globe Pequot Press.