A Year After Flooding, Iowa Limps To Recovery A year ago, torrential rains in eastern Iowa turned what was already serious flooding into a catastrophe. The Cedar River overflowed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, damaging thousands of homes and businesses. A year later, recovery in Cedar Rapids has been slow.
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A Year After Flooding, Iowa Limps To Recovery

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A Year After Flooding, Iowa Limps To Recovery

A Year After Flooding, Iowa Limps To Recovery

A Year After Flooding, Iowa Limps To Recovery

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A year ago, torrential rains in eastern Iowa turned what was already serious flooding into a catastrophe. The Cedar River overflowed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, damaging thousands of homes and businesses. A year later, recovery in Cedar Rapids has been slow.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A year ago today, torrential rains in eastern Iowa turned serious flooding into catastrophe. The Cedar River overflowed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Water surged through the streets. It inundated 10 square miles and damaged thousands of homes and businesses.

NPR's David Schaper covered those floods and now, he's returned to find out how Cedar Rapids is recovering.

(Soundbite of a motorboat)

DAVID SCHAPER: One year ago, Cedar Rapids fire Captain Craig Dirks and firefighter Jason Andrews steered a motorboat through water 10 to 12 feet deep through the neighborhood that housed their fire station.

Captain CRAIG DIRKS (Iowa Fire Department): This is our main thoroughfare to the northwest side, Ellis Boulevard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And it is very sad to see it right now.

SCHAPER: At the time, they couldn't even begin to think about the cleanup and what would become of this neighborhood. One year later, outside his now-shuttered firehouse and among flood-ravaged homes, Captain Dirks says the scene is still surreal.

Capt. DIRKS: Normally, these houses were all occupied, and it was a normal neighborhood. And now, it's an empty shell of, you know, broken-up houses. So it's a really weird feeling just being here.

SCHAPER: In downtown Cedar Rapids, 80 percent of the businesses that flooded are back, but the recovery lags far behind on the west side of the river, the mostly low and moderate income residential areas. Few residents here had flood insurance. Many were close to a mile away from the river and saw no need. Some won't be able to rebuild. Those closest to the river will be bought out. Others will lose their homes to new flood walls and levies. But some of those who want to rebuild are running into trouble.

Mr. CHUCK SMITH(ph): Welcome to my house. It's better than it was.

SCHAPER: Thirty-four-year-old Chuck Smith and his girlfriend had been in this house less than a year when the floodwaters filled it up. FEMA gave Smith a little more than $28,000, a fraction of what's needed for repairs, so he is relying on friends and is taking on much of the rebuilding work himself.

Mr. SMITH: The only things we've had done by professionals is the electrical. I did all the painting. I did the subfloor. That took me 36 hours. I did that straight.

SCHAPER: Smith says it's hard work he can only do in fits and starts. He says he's fried and beginning to run out of money.

Mr. SMITH: It's weird because a month ago, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and now, it's flickering off again because I'm so tired.

SCHAPER: Smith has no idea when he'll be able to finish the house. Others in Cedar Rapids aren't waiting to rebuild but to move on.

Ms. JAYLEN BANK(ph): Our house is red-tagged because the foundation has been severely compromised. So we haven't been inside in a year.

SCHAPER: Jaylen Bank shows where water pressure caved in a basement wall of her home. Fixing it, she says, would cost almost what the house is worth. Her yard and her house are littered with brightly colored signs pleading for government help. Help us, Obama, says one. Cedar Rapids, the forgotten city, reads another.

The city has promised buyouts backed by federal funds for those who can't rebuild, but the issue is clouded with uncertainty. And in the meantime, Bank says her life is on hold.

Ms. BANK: We can't make plans for next year because we don't know if we're going to be bought out, if we're still going to have to stay, you know, around the city to deal with this. We just live day to day.

SCHAPER: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan visited Cedar Rapids this week, bringing more than $500 million in new flood recovery funds for Iowa, but who gets buyouts and when may take months to sort out. And Cedar Rapids officials say much more money is needed.

Meantime, this city will commemorate the one year anniversary of the record flood crest tomorrow with a solemn ceremony along the river in Cedar Rapids.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1 Year After Record Flood

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1 Year After Record Flood

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On June 13, 2008, the Cedar River crested almost 20 feet above flood level. That was more than 11 feet higher than the previous record flood. Heavy winter snows and an exceptionally wet spring, capped by torrential thunderstorms, swelled the river as wide as the Mississippi. Ten square miles of Cedar Rapids was under water — including about 1,000 businesses and more than 5,000 homes.

"We had 8 foot of water in the building," said flower shop owner Al Pierson. He's 6-foot-3 and stretches up to show how high the water rose in his shop in the northwest section of the city. It is a mostly working-class neighborhood across the river from downtown. It's full of older houses, many of which are boarded up or hollowed out.

That community, and the adjacent Czech Village neighborhood to the south, were the hardest hit by the floodwaters.

"We lost everything," Pierson said. "Everything in here looked like a bomb went off."

Pierson says that includes the adjacent house his grandparents built, and the one next door that he grew up in. His grandparents started the shop 80 years ago. It suffered $1 million in damages. Pierson didn't have insurance.

"What went through my mind: "I'm done. I'm finished. I'm out of business," Pierson said.

He 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 is many of his neighbors and customers. Few displaced residents have been able to repair or rebuild their homes.

There is some home rebuilding under way. Sometimes it's just one or two homes on a block, and much of the work is being done by volunteers. The few residents who can afford it are renovating their homes themselves.

The majority of the homes damaged or destroyed were small. They were valued at $50,000 to $80,000 and were occupied by lower income homeowners or renters. Few had flood insurance.

"For one flood survivor who is trying to rebuild their house, they have to go through nine steps with the federal government in order to get payment," said Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors. "That is very cumbersome, it's very discouraging, and it makes recovery so slow."

Those who don't want to rebuild — or can't — are waiting for possible government buyouts. Many residents have run out of emergency government aid. Hundreds remain in FEMA trailers, while others struggle to pay for both rental housing and the mortgage on a flood-damaged home.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shawn Donovan, who was in Cedar Rapids this week, promised that the Obama administration would work to streamline the bureaucratic process.

He also announced $500 million in new federal flood recovery funds for Iowa. Some of that money will go toward the long-awaited buyouts.

But local officials say much more federal funding is needed, and it may take 10 years or more for Cedar Rapids to fully recover.