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Cedar Rapids, Iowa, designated 2008 the Year of the River. And it was. The designation was meant to celebrate the Cedar River, which cuts through the center of town. Instead, the river turned on Iowa's second largest city and its raging flood waters damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses one year ago this week. NPR's David Schaper covered the flooding when it happened and he returned to Cedar Rapids this week and reports the city is recovering, just slowly.
DAVID SCHAPER: Anyone wanting to check out a book from the Cedar Rapids Public Library now has to go to the mall. One year ago, the Cedar River flooded like never before and the library in downtown Cedar Rapids was one of thousands of buildings inundated.
Ms. TAMARA GLISE (Interim director, Cedar Rapids Public Library): This was an Osco Drug Store.
SCHAPER: Tamara Glise, interim director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library, said the struggling Westdale Mall far from downtown had several empty spaces and required creative adaptations.
Ms. GLISE: We actually opened up what used to be a storage room in the old drug store and turned that into the adult stacks.
SCHAPER: The library isn't alone at the mall. The county government relocated its offices there, too, because of the flood after the Cedar River crested last June 13 almost 20 feet above flood level and more than 11 feet higher than the previous record flood.
Heavy winter snows and an exceptionally wet spring capped by torrential thunderstorms swelled the Cedar River as wide as the Mississippi, leaving 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids under water, including a thousand businesses and more than 5,000 homes along with city hall and most other vital government buildings.
Mr. AL PIERSON (Owner, Pierson's Flower Shop): We had eight foot of water in the building. So the tip of my finger…
SCHAPER: 6'3 Al Pierson stretches up to show how high the water rose in his flower shop in the northwest section of Cedar Rapids. This is a mostly working class neighborhood across the river from downtown, full of small older, one and one and a half story frame houses, many of which are now boarded up or hollowed out.
This and the adjacent Czech Village neighborhood to the south were the hardest hit by the flood waters, and Pearson's flower shop and greenhouses got hammered.
Mr. PIERSON: So we lost everything out here.
SCHAPER: Al Pierson takes us out to a courtyard filled with flowers and potted plants and then through his long, narrow greenhouses.
Mr. PIERSON: This got pushed in by the surge of water. It was pushed in. This big palm tree went through the flood. It survived. It was knocked over. Everything in here looked like a bomb went off.
SCHAPER: Pierson says that includes the adjacent house his grandparents built and the one next door that he grew up in. He says this family flower business that his grandparents started 80 years ago suffered a million dollars in damages and Pierson didn't have insurance.
Mr. PIERSON: What went through my mind was I'm done, I'm finished, I'm out of business. I'm done.
SCHAPER: But Pierson eventually decided to clean up, repair and try to reopen. He became frustrated trying to obtain government assistance, but with a loan from the local credit union, the flower shop was able to reopen last November. What Pierson lacks now is many of his neighbors and customers. Few displaced residents of Cedar Rapids have been able to repair or rebuild their home.
Mr. PIERSON: It's sad. It's sad, because I know all these people. I know their names. A lot of them have - a lot of them are houses that have been handed down to their kids, or their kids bought from the parents. So I knew the parents. I know the kids. And, you know, it's sad.
SCHAPER: I'm standing in the middle of 6th Street, Northwest. Almost every home up and down this street looks like it's been completely abandoned. Many have signs saying that they are structurally unsound, unsafe to enter. And many look like they haven't been entered since the flood waters raged through here a year ago.
(Soundbite of hammering)
But there is some home rebuilding under way in Cedar Rapids, sometimes just one or two homes on a block, but sometimes more, and much of the work is being done by volunteers. The few residents who an afford it are renovating their homes themselves, but the vast majority of the homes damaged and destroyed in Cedar Rapids were small, valued at $50,000 to $80,000 and occupied by lower income home owners or renters. Few had flood insurance and those turning to the government for assistance are finding it difficult.
Ms. LU BARRON (Chair, Linn County Board of Supervisors): For one flood survivor who is trying to rebuild their house, they have to go through nine different steps with the federal government in order to get payment.
SCHAPER: Lu Barron chairs the Linn County, Iowa Board of Supervisors.
Ms. BARRON: That is very cumbersome. It's very discouraging. And it makes recovery so slow.
SCHAPER: Those who don't want to rebuild or can't are waiting for possible government buyouts, but many have run out of emergency government aid. Hundreds remain in FEMA trailers. Others struggle to pay for both rental housing and the mortgage on a flood damaged home.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Shaun Donovan, in Cedar Rapids this week, promised the Obama administration will work to streamline the bureaucratic process. He also brought $500 million in new federal flood recovery funds for Iowa. Some of it will go toward the long awaited buy-outs. But local officials say much more federal funding is needed and it may take 10 years or more for Cedar Rapids to fully recover.
David Schaper, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And David will have more on Cedar Rapids homeowners and their struggle to recover today on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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