FEMA Gets Better Grades in Iowa

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Win McNamee / Getty

Jerry Ford, left, and Jessica Reid rescue a young puppy named Connor, June 18, 2008 as floodwaters overtake the town of Oakville, Iowa.

One month after floodwaters destroyed their home and belongings in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Slaymaker family — Tom, 35, Kara, 37, Samantha, 16, and Andrew, 10 — are living in a neighboring community in a mobile home provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The trailer is better than the Slaymakers' previous shelter — a tent in a friend's backyard where the family camped for three weeks after the Cedar River swamped 1,300 city blocks in early June, prompting 25,000 residents to evacuate. Better, but still not home. "I'm worn out," says Tom Slaymaker. "I have no idea how long we're staying."

In over 340 flood-and-tornado-ravaged communities across Iowa, thousands of people remain in limbo after what many consider the state's worst natural disaster. Seventy-eight of Iowa's 99 counties are under presidential disaster proclamation. Almost 31,000 people have registered for FEMA aid; more than 9,000 homes have been damaged and 3,000 destroyed; flood repair estimates have surged (to $1.3 billion in Cedar Rapids alone). The government, however, has learned from Katrina. The FEMA "mobile homes," as the government prefers to call them, are arriving (of the 500 requested in the Cedar Rapids area, 305 are on site and 95 are now occupied) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) has approved $95 million in loans. Flood victims report getting some of the help they need. FEMA officials are more personable and responsive; the agency has provided $104 million in grants to 17,432 local households to date. So far, Iowa is not post-hurricane Louisiana.

And Iowans are grateful for the checks, loans, donations and clean-up help from the government, non-profits, church groups, volunteers, neighbors and out-of-towners. They generally praise federal government agencies as well as the Red Cross and state and local governments for a prompt initial response. But some also report frustrating delays, run-arounds, indecision and lack of information. And emotions range from relief to grief, calmness to anxiety, optimism to gloom. People who had the least to begin with are sounding the most marooned. Difficult decisions, for individuals and communities, loom about how to rebuild, including whether to seek a federal property buyout. In Oakville, where 193 of 203 homes and businesses were heavily damaged or destroyed, many of the 439 residents want FEMA to buy out the entire town. In a written statement to TIME, the agency's coordinating officer for Iowa, Bill Vogel said: "Much has been done. Much remains to be done. FEMA is in Iowa for the long haul to do everything within the agency’s power to help the state and its citizens recover."

This week in Coralville, Dave Metzler watched bulldozers raze the flood-ravaged building that housed his business and home — the Coral Lanes bowling alley, which Metzler lived above. "They're driving over the lanes and tearing them up like firewood at a campsite. It's a terrible sound," says Metzler, standing beside a 14-foot high mountain of debris. But, he adds, "I've cried enough over this. There's no tears left."

Metzler is not among the estimated 1% of Iowans with flood insurance, so he appreciates the help he's received, including $250 in food assistance for the month, $300 a week in "unemployment-type disaster relief" and personal phone calls from a FEMA official. Staying with friends as he awaits a possible FEMA trailer, Metzler is determined to restart his business elsewhere in town. "Heck yeah," he says. "You've got to have a bowling alley in Coralville!"

Nearby, in rural Iowa City, cleanup recently began at Ted Thorn's house along the Iowa River, which took in over nine feet of water. "It was awful to see 20 to 30 years of stuff lying in your driveway," Thorn says, but adds, "that's over with. So we get to start over again." Thorn, who did have flood insurance, praises the disaster relief effort so far. "The folks that I've dealt with, although there's been no resolution, have been terrific," he says.

For now, Thorn lives part-time in two places — his daughter's house in Galesburg, Illinois, where he and his wife relocated on June 7, and "out of a suitcase" in Iowa City. "I'm going to be able to write a hell of a book about cheap motels in the Iowa City-Coralville area," jokes Thorn, who works at the University of Iowa. Repair costs at the flood-damaged campus itself are estimated at $232 million.

In Cedar Rapids, Robby Cooper, 22, a legal assistant, calls the $21,000 he received after filing a FEMA claim for his home and belongings "pretty good help," adding, "It's bought me quite a bit of time to figure out what I'm going to do." But Tom Slaymaker, who has a back ailment and is unemployed, says he has received only $1,200 and hopes for more. The family not only lost the rental home where they lived but another home they own (and were on the verge of selling, Slaymaker says). They did not have renters or flood insurance. The family also wants to move to a FEMA trailer in Cedar Rapids, closer to Kara's nursing home job and the children's schools. "I've just put my life in God's hands," says Slaymaker. "I don't know what else to do."