A Year After the Flood, Cedar Rapids Struggles

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Scott Olson / Getty

Cedar Rapids Fire Department personnel and Army reservists use a boat to rescue residents from flooded areas of the city on June 12, 2008

"Survivors BBQ. Everyone Welcome," read the handwritten sign tacked onto a recently rebuilt home last weekend in a Cedar Rapids neighborhood still ravaged a year after the city's worst flooding disaster. "We've become stronger — more of a family," says Toni Grimm, the home's owner, talking about her neighborhood, Czech Village, a historic ethnic area bordering the now tranquil Cedar River. Last June, the river swamped 10 square miles of Iowa's second largest city (metro-area pop. 255,000). There are signs of life in the downtown business district, with factories and shops reopened. But whole swaths of neighborhoods along the river remain eerily lifeless, with one abandoned, waterlogged shell of a house after another, some spray-painted with warnings and pleas: "We want a buyout," "This is still my house. Stay out," "Don't forget us."

The low-key Czech Village gathering, which drew a handful of neighbors, is among several commemorations being held this month in Cedar Rapids and across eastern Iowa to mark the one-year anniversary of flooding that deluged cities large and small, upending many lives and causing an estimated $10 billion worth of damage ($6 billion in Cedar Rapids alone). Eighty-eight of Iowa's 99 counties were declared a natural disaster area as a result of last year's flooding and two deadly tornadoes. While progress has been made to recover from Iowa's worst disaster, many frustrated homeowners still await government help to rebuild or buy and level their flood-damaged homes. Iowa has been allocated $798 million in federal block grant money that can be used for buyouts. But because of restrictive federal rules, only $24 million has been spent.

State leaders hope the Department of Housing and Urban Development will grant their request to develop a "disaster track" that would temporarily ease restrictions so the money can reach residents and communities faster. They're also hopeful that Iowa will receive more overall federal and state disaster aid. To date, over $3 billion has been allocated, with $638 million spent. "It's the timeliness of the money that frustrates us all," says Lieut. General Ron Dardis, a former Iowa National Guard commander who is executive director of the state's Rebuild Iowa Office, created soon after last June's disaster. He also acknowledged the "huge gap" in overall aid vs. unmet needs but praised the Federal Government's receptiveness.

Among residents, tension over the uncertainty is palpable. Some praise the swift early response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state, which created a special program to help people awaiting buyouts make a down payment on another home. Residents are also thankful for the hard labor of countless volunteers. And in March, Cedar Rapids voters approved a local-option sales tax expected to produce $17 million a year to be used for buyouts. But the city's plan to improve flood protection, redevelop the riverfront and rebuild public facilities remains a concern for some. It includes buying out flood-damaged homes in the flood plain to make way for green space, flood walls and levees. "The city didn't look after their people," says Frank King, a neighborhood leader. "They have used this flood for economic cleansing, to get rid of the substandard housing that used to be homes for many people."

King faults city officials for "panicking people" early on by sending out conflicting messages about buyouts. "Most of the people who lived in the flood area were people of limited means, and it opened up a terrible, terrible opportunity," says King. Many sold their houses to speculators for "10 cents on the dollar" because "there was no direction from the city council."

City councilman Brian Fagan denies the charges. "We're not trying to push anyone out," he says. "We totally understand the frustration of all those people in those neighborhoods who are waiting. We have tried to move and advance as quickly as we can." He points to federal funding that has been too slow in reaching residents and, to date, too little. He says the city needs to ensure that disaster aid is spent wisely and that the city rebuilds in a smart, sustainable way that prevents future flooding. Says Fagan: "Going through the natural disaster, then the economic crisis, then a bitterly cold and hard winter certainly put strains on those ties that bind us together as a community. But we've got the plans in place and the commitment and engagement from the community."

Yet in Czech Village last weekend, the mood was subdued. A hog roast to mark the anniversary, held in the still recovering one-block historic shopping district, was sparsely attended by midafternoon and dominated by the accordion of a three-piece band. "We have to celebrate how far we've come, but we have a long way to go," says Gail Naughton, CEO of the nearby National Czech and Slovak Museum, which sponsored the roast. The museum was shuttered by the flood, but officials hope to rebuild. "People here are resilient, they're hardworking and they'll do what they need to do," says Naughton. "It's the uncertainty, the major decisions about where houses will be bought out and won't, where floodwalls will be and won't. People won't fight it. But they need to know so they can move on with their lives."

After enduring months of living in FEMA trailers, Toni Grimm and the neighbors at her barbecue are trying to move on — and stay put. Among the fortunate few with flood insurance, they still lost irreplaceable possessions to the flood waters. But Grimm's husband Tim says, "We aren't planning on going anywhere."