Iowa: After the Flooding, the Waiting

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Jeff Roberson / AP

Flooded homes are seen Saturday, June 14, 2008, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

There's only so much one state can take. As the flood waters crest and begin to recede in hard-hit cities like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowans' initial can-do, stoic response to the slow swamping of our state's homes, businesses and crops — about 36,000 people have been left homeless, according to the governor's estimate — is giving way, understandably, to physical and emotional exhaustion.

In Cedar Rapids, some residents and business owners have reacted with anger and frustration when denied access to their flooded neighborhoods, which officials say remain unsafe. Flood waters that have already ravaged many cities are moving downriver toward the already swollen Mississippi, threatening still more communities. For eastern Iowans like Dave Metzler, who was evacuated late Thursday night from the bowling alley he owns and lives above in Coralville, near Iowa City, life is now an anxious waiting game to learn the full extent of the damage. "I not only lost my business, I lost my home — I got the double whammy," says Metzler. "It's still shock, total shock."

On Sunday, Metzler traveled by boat down a river that was formerly one of the area's busiest streets to find waist-high water in his establishment, Coral Lanes. "That's a disaster, a goner," he says of the 56-year-old bowling alley on First Avenue that he's owned since just after Iowa's devastating 1993 flood. (There is debate about whether Iowa's 2008 flood has been even more devastating.)

Metzler is more hopeful about his apartment above Coral Lanes but doesn't think he'll be able to return to it for about a week. Being ordered to evacuate was like getting "smacked in the face," says Metzler, who had spent eight hours on Thursday sandbagging with friends, family and volunteers. "It was heartbreaking."

Ed Rinderspacher, a friend Metzler has stayed with, worked for two days to move items out of his irrigation and landscaping business. Flood water came within a foot of his building, then stopped. "It's kind of surreal," he says. "Physically, you're exhausted from doing all this stuff and emotionally you're exhausted from thinking about it and wondering what to do."

Ted Thorn, who lives along the rampaging Iowa River near a major dam in rural Iowa City, fears his home is destroyed. "I'm assuming it has at least eight feet of water," says Thorn, who voluntarily evacuated with his wife on June 7 when "water just started to lap at the door."

"I don't know if I still have a house. We're considering ourselves to be fairly lucky — we weren't part of the group that was told, 'Grab your toothbrush and get out.'... But it's still a pretty anxiety-producing event, not knowing where you are as far as your house is concerned. We may have lost everything."

Thorn, who has been living with his daughter in Galesburg, Illinois, anticipates that he won't be able to visit his house for a month. Until then, he's commuting several days a week to his University of Iowa job as director of athletic grounds (which, needless to say, are in bad shape).

Even though Ray Slach's farm in West Branch, east of Iowa City, isn't near a swollen river, he's had his share of troubles — most recently, hail damage to some crops from a fierce storm on Saturday that included a brief tornado. "We're assessing now whether it's a total loss or we can replant or it will come back," says Slach, who farms 1800 acres of corn and soybeans. "We're not going to have yields like we had last year."

Here in Des Moines, we've had flooding in pockets but have fared relatively well so far, compared to eastern Iowa (and to the 1993 flood). There's relief that the downtown area has largely been spared major damage, thanks to bolstered flood protection post-1993. But feverish attempts to bolster a levee near a neighborhood north of downtown ultimately failed. Watching televised scenes of water rushing over destroyed sandbags into streets where people live and work was not what my teenage son and I, among hundreds of volunteer sandbaggers in Des Moines, had hoped to see. But like many, we expect to help more as the water recedes and recovery begins.

"You can't be totally relaxed until the water gets down and we can actually see how much damage there is," says Andrew Stewart, a University of Iowa junior, who was among hundreds sandbagging in Iowa City, even though he's on crutches following recent surgery. With one-eighth of the campus affected by flooding, the university suspended this week's summer classes. "At some point, you're going to have to turn around and move all those sandbags and I'm sure there's going to be a lot of houses with debris. They'll be looking for volunteers. We're going to see the same kind of effort out of people."