All Quiet on the Riverfront

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on August 19, 2008

(by Mindy Belz, CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – After the Cedar River crested June 13 at nearly 20 feet above flood stage, this city of over 120,000 feels deserted. An agrihub dominated by Quaker Oats and Cargill food processing facilities, Cedar Rapids in its downtown area saw floodwaters reach 12 feet above its worst flood on record, set in 1851. Nearly two months later, you cannot mail a letter, buy a bagel, check in at the Crowne Plaza, or check out a book at the city library.

In addition to the flood-damaged post office, the hotel, the library, and food outlets like Bruegger’s are about 100 flood-damaged blocks containing department stores, theaters, and government and other offices. Many commercial properties are hollowed-out or boarded-up shells of their former selves following heavy rains and days of standing floodwater in June. Those that survive sit idle, stripped of wallboard, flooring, and furnishings. On empty streets the hum of utility pumps and the generators to run them continues day and night.

Waterlogged are businesses, bars, banks, city hall, the city jail, and dozens of neighborhoods-in all, city officials say, about 18,000 structures, including around 15,000 houses. In many areas flood survivors are racing a deadline set by city officials for debris removal later this month; after that, officials say, it will be too late to salvage buildings overrun by mold and too difficult to haul away flood wreckage with the approach of cold weather and snow.

The degree of the urban devastation-if not its size-brings to mind Hurricane Katrina’s wreckage in New Orleans and other Gulf cities. And that’s what got to Keri Norwood, who followed news of Iowa’s extensive flooding via the internet from her home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., 1,000 miles away. “What I saw was very similar to the way houses looked in Bay St. Louis after Katrina. I thought, ‘We have been given so much with volunteers and help. It’s only appropriate that we should give back.'”

Norwood ran an ad in her local paper soliciting volunteers to help in the Midwest. In late July she and a dozen other Bay St. Louis residents drove north to begin mucking out houses and cleaning up in Cedar Rapids. The group is multi-denominational: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others. Norwood, 28, is on staff at Lagniappe Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Bay St. Louis, a church just 40 minutes outside New Orleans that continues to be at the center of Gulf Coast rebuilding (“Dark to daylight,” Aug. 26, 2006). Lagniappe currently has seven houses of its own under construction and is hosting this year about 200 volunteers a day as part of a cooperative arrangement with Habitat for Humanity-three years after Hurricane Katrina.

Haven’t Gulf Coast residents seen enough flood-related cleanup? “Coming here is therapy,” laughs Curt Moore, another team member and an ordained pastor who now coordinates relief activities through Lagniappe.

Said Norwood: “If there is anyone who understands the pain and emotion of losing your home, it’s these volunteers.” Three team members did have their Gulf Coast homes wiped out down to the foundation, and they moved into new homes only earlier this year. Bob Delcuze of Bay St. Louis lost his home of 40 years in Katrina, and with the help of volunteers moved into a newly completed-and elevated-home on the same site in February. He decided to come to Cedar Rapids to help with flood cleanup here because “I feel like I owe it to somebody,” he said. The damage in Cedar Rapids, according to Delcuze, “is almost like a normal hurricane, not like Katrina, but if your house is flooded, once it gets to the ceiling it’s all equal. The issues are the same-am I going to rebuild? Will anyone help?”

Members of the Lagniappe team also understand the red tape. Insurance claims can take months to process and buyouts can take years. June’s flood-waters breached an earthen levee along the Cedar River, causing the most extensive damage in old neighborhoods abutting the riverfront. Yet many were outside the floodplain and not eligible for flood insurance. And until the city comes up with a plan to extend or rebuild the levee, houses in those areas are in limbo.

Altogether the Lagniappe team members “mucked out” three houses in under five days-removing plaster, damaged wall studs, carpeting, kitchen appliances, and cabinetry. Along the way they and other volunteer teams have found themselves also hauling out personal belongings and helping residents sort the sentimental from the largely unsalvageable: photo albums, Christmas ornaments, toys, and wedding dresses.

One of the houses Bay St. Louis residents cleared sits at 80 22nd Avenue SW in a 100-year-old, largely working-class neighborhood. Owner Leland Maynes, who does delivery and other work for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, lived there alone after his wife died 14 years ago. Many residents here bought their homes from first- and second-generation Czech immigrants, who came to Cedar Rapids in a wave beginning in the late 19th century to work in packinghouses or to set up businesses of their own. Maynes’ two-story frame bungalow, like every other home that lines the street, is sooty with mold climbing up to its second-floor window. Foot tracks cross front porches still an inch deep in river silt. Sunflowers and other stray volunteers spring up in foot-high grass no one’s thought to mow. At dusk 22nd Avenue is soundless and absolutely empty of people. Street lamps won’t come on, as electricity to flooded neighborhoods is cut.

The floodwater came up seven feet into Maynes’ main floor, he said, while some homes in the neighborhood saw water lines extend 2-3 feet into the second floor. Now gutted, the home sits like thousands of others, windows and doors propped open to the street, drying, waiting. The front door bears a yellow placard. Under a color-coded system instituted by the city, yellow means limited entry at one’s own risk. As of late July over 4,000 structures had been issued yellow cards. Others on the street have purple cards, meaning they will be demolished, and a few have green cards indicating they are now safe for occupancy.

Maynes is living outside the city temporarily with a friend. “I am prepared to wait, ” he said of his house, “but I might give it away.” That kind of ambivalence is everywhere. “Will sell for $10,000,” is spray-painted on one boarded-up house, but around the corner is a vacated automotive store with, “You loot I shoot.”

And that’s where the Lagniappe team comes in. They can speak to disaster-dazed residents from a future flood victims don’t yet see. “My goal is that this is the beginning, for us and for them,” said Norwood. Already she has assembled another team to return to Cedar Rapids in mid-October. They are prepared to continue cleanup but hoping that some skilled labor-and reconstruction-will be on the agenda, too.

Copyright ©2008 WORLD Magazine, August 23, 2008 issue.  Reprinted here August 19th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at


After months of heavy precipitation, [in June 2008] a number of rivers overflowed their banks for several weeks at a time and broke through levees at numerous locations [in the Midwest]. Flooding continued into July. States affected by the flooding included Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. ...  Flooding continued as long as two weeks with central Iowa and Cedar Rapids being hardest hit. The upper Mississippi Valley experienced flooding in Missouri and Illinois as the region's estuaries drained the floodwater into the river. The ... region-wide [damage] was estimated to be in the tens of billions. (from