As Iowa Floods Recede, Damage Surveyed

Some relief comes to Cedar Rapids, Iowa as water levels on the rain-swollen Cedar River begin to fall. More than 10,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes this week after flooding, and thousands of homes, businesses and huge tracts of farmland in Iowa remain under water.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The worst of the Midwest floods may be over, but thousands of homes and businesses remain submerged in the floods - are now blamed for at least two deaths in Iowa.

The most severe flooding appears to be in Cedar Rapids, where the rain-swollen Cedar River crested yesterday. More than 10,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. NPR's David Schaper surveyed the damage by boat yesterday with a pair of firefighters.

(Soundbite of boat)

DAVID SCHAPER: For Captain Craig Dirks and firefighter Jason Andrews, it's an odd, eerie feeling navigating these streets in Cedar Rapids by boat instead of in a fire engine.

Unidentified Man (Firefighter, Cedar Rapids, Iowa): It's depressing. It's overwhelming. When we drive by our fire station, it's pretty depressing.

SCHAPER: Dirks and Andrews work at a fire station that is now completely underwater, as is more than 400 full city blocks in Cedar Rapids. The scene is surreal: restaurants, gas stations, office buildings and homes submerged almost to the roofline in some cases. It's eerily reminiscent of post-Katrina New Orleans.

After going under an interstate bridge with barely enough clearance space, Dirks turns the boat north, and Andrews spots the fire station.

Mr. JASON ANDREWS (Firefighter, Cedar Rapids, Iowa): You can see our bay doors, just three feet of them right there.

SCHAPER: So how high does that make the water?

Mr. ANDREWS: Oh…

Captain CRAIG DIRKS (Firefighter, Cedar Rapids, Iowa): The bay doors are 14 foot, so it's about 11 feet right now.

SCHAPER: Eleven feet?

Capt. DIRKS: About 11 feet.

SCHAPER: Andrews, Dirks and other Cedar Rapids firefighters had spent much of the previous 24 hours rescuing residents. By Friday afternoon, with every person evacuated safely, they turned their efforts toward pets: cats and dogs left behind.

Capt. DIRKS: We're going to have a hard time finding 608.

SCHAPER: But house numbers and some street signs are under water, so specific houses are hard to find.

Mr. ANDREWS: Now we - it's going to be one of these, Craig. We just passed it now. 608, it's probably going to be, God can you remember?

SCHAPER: It takes a call to the pet's owner to find this small, single-story home with flood waters nearly to the top of the windows.

Capt. DIRKS: I'm going to have to see if there's an access for me to even - yeah, these windows over here.

SCHAPER: Dirks steers the boat to the side of the house. Andrews smashes in the window.

(Soundbite of glass breaking)

SCHAPER: After peeling away the broken shards, Andrews peers inside the dark, flooded house.

Mr. ANDREWS: Here kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty.

SCHAPER: He sees the cat, but he can't reach it.

Mr. ANDREWS: Here kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty.

SCHAPER: Andrews tries several times but just can't get it, so they leave the cat behind for another crew with a longer pole to try later, and they're off to try to find a dog a few blocks away.

Capt. DIRKS: It'll be a husky. He'll be in today. Put it in the attic. So we should be able to get that one, I hope.

SCHAPER: Craig Dirks starts up the motor and heads off to the next house, pulling up to an open attic window.

Mr. ANDREWS: Here Jo-Jo(ph).

SCHAPER: But the dog is tied up, and Andrews has to crawl inside.

Mr. ANDREWS: Hold on. Hold on, Jo-Jo.

SCHAPER: And he brings her to the boat.

Mr. ANDREWS: Let's go. Come on, come on. Good girl.

SCHAPER: As they take Jo-Jo to dry land, I ask Craig Dirks and Jason Andrews if they've thought yet about what will become of this Cedar Rapids, the neighborhood they both worked in for years, when the water finally recedes.

(Soundbite of bell)

Capt. DIRKS: I really haven't. I think the shock's going to wear off a lot of people here soon, and the hurt's going to begin more.

Mr. ANDREWS: I really don't want to think about the cleanup. It's going to be - it's unthinkable, and whether there'll be cleanup or just demolition.

SCHAPER: For now, these two Cedar Rapids firefighters are focused on reuniting Jo-Jo the husky with her family, a good thing in the midst of this incredible devastation. David Schaper, NPR News in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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