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Strengthened By Highwater

Somewhere south of Mason City, the clouds opened and a deluge of rain pounded down, sending cars creeping to the highway’s shoulder to wait out the worst of it.

My friend and associate, Andy Anderson, was behind the wheel, pushing on. In the back seat, I was reading mayoral emails and preparing a speech to give to a Rotary Club the next morning on water quality and modernizing Iowa’s income tax code.

Our windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. Sixty-five miles an hour had slowed to 15.

I was aware that it had been an odd September 2016, with weeks of late summer storms north of Cedar Rapids in the Cedar River watershed. I knew, too, that protracted heavy rain up there can mean flooding downstream in Cedar Rapids. But this was September. It never floods in September in Iowa.

Even so, I texted our city manager, Jeff Pomeranz, to tell him about the rain around Mason City and to find out if the Cedar River was behaving in Cedar Rapids. It was.

But the rain up north fell all night, pelting the windows and rattling in the motel gutters and downspouts. I hardly slept a minute.

At my 7 a.m. speaking event, all anyone could talk about was the 10 inches of rain the night before. I did a brief TV news interview after the speech, but the news-room was abuzz about rain, not about my messages on water quality and income taxes.

Pomeranz phoned me. The National Weather Service now was predicting that the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids would rise within days to near historic levels. I canceled the rest of my schedule and hurried home.

As I pulled into Cedar Rapids, the river-level prediction had jumped to 24 feet, 4 feet higher than at any time in more than 160 years of Cedar Rapids history—not count-
ing the city’s flood disaster of June 2008 when the river reached 31.12 feet.

I had spent seven years as mayor helping to lead Cedar Rapids through the recovery from one devastating flood, and now we were facing the prospect of another. Much of our rebuilding after 2008 suddenly stood in harm’s way.

It made me think about the movie “Apollo 13.” There’s that scene when the NASA flight director dumps a box of odds and ends and spare parts on a desk and tells the engi-
needs to figure out a way to get the disabled Apollo spacecraft and astronaut Jim Lovell—played by Tom Hanks—and his crew home.

It felt just like that when I spoke at a news conference at City Hall to promise residents that we would find a way to protect Cedar Rapids from what looked like 2008 all over again.

I intended it to be more than a promise.

As the river rose, city crews, with the help of private contractors, erected 9.8 miles of HESCO barriers—big, wire-mesh baskets that are filled with sand—and dirt berms in a couple of days. Musco Lighting of Oskaloosa, Iowa, provided lighting so the work could continue through the night, and the University of Iowa sold us some of its HESCOs to bolster our supply.

We designed the emergency plan to protect the city to a flood crest of 26 feet. A cadre of mostly citizen volunteers filled another 250,000 sandbags and placed them around businesses and homes as a second line of defense. As a final defense, we asked some 8,000 people to evacuate homes and businesses at risk of flooding.

“If it works, we will have saved the city,” I said at the news conference on Sept. 26, the day before the flood crest.

Then we waited and watched as the river made its final climb and rising water began to threaten some of the HESCOs and berms. In places, water seeped through the barriers, and in other spots, water came up from the storm sewers.

“We built a temporary system. It’s not safe. It’s not permanent,” Jen Winter, the city’s public works director, warned when many in the at-risk area had not left.

I said any sightseer on foot or on a bicycle near the berms and HESCOs didn’t stand a chance in the event of a breach.

But there weren’t any. The makeshift flood protection held. We had averted a second flood disaster in eight years. In the end, the river got to 21.95 feet on Tuesday, Sept. 27—the second-highest crest in city history—before receding.

Holding back the high water of September 2016 in Cedar Rapids captured plenty of national news attention because the city had survived a devastating flood so recently. As mayor, I was asked dozens of times how the city had been able to protect itself this time. I said it wasn’t just that Cedar Rapids residents and Iowans are good people. Good people are other places, too.

No, we beat back the flood because we hadn’t forgotten the scars and memories of 2008. We still remembered the ruined, water-soaked photos, clothes, furniture and every other kind of possession stacked outside homes. We still felt the claws of heavy equipment grabbing it all up and dropping it into dump trucks on the way to the landfill.

I think, too, that Cedar Rapids had come a long way since 2008, and residents knew that. We had gained a new-found strength in disaster and the recovery from it. We felt a sense of achievement. We didn’t want to lose that. We didn’t want to see it ruined.

The year 2008 had been unbelievable. That June, things fell apart when a downpour hit as the flooding river was cresting—a worst-case nightmare that sent water over 10 square miles of the city, covering 1,126 city blocks.

Of those, 561 blocks took a major hit. The water entered 6,865 residential properties, forced more than 10,000 residents out of their homes and affected 754 commercial and industrial properties, including much of the downtown. All the city’s major public buildings were damaged or ruined.

There was City Hall, sticking out of the river from its flooded home on May’s Island. Tanker cars and the train bridge beneath them had toppled into the floodwater next to downtown. Harbor houses ripped from their moorings were stacked downstream, one on top of another.

By 2016, I was finishing my seventh year as mayor, and I had grown accustomed to reciting a long list of victories to document the quality of the city’s recovery and its transformation after the 2008 disaster.

With a mix of private investment and public disaster grants, 866 new replacement homes and about 2,000 apartment and condominium units were built in the city, many in flood-impacted older neighborhoods but out of harm’s way. Also, more than 2,300 flood-damaged homes and apartment units were renovated.

Today, too, there is a new greenway stretching along the river where some 1,300 flood-ruined homes once stood and have been demolished.

The city has a new downtown library, central fire station, convention center, public works building, animal control facility and federal courthouse. City Hall (now in the former federal courthouse), the Paramount Theatre, the Veterans Memorial Building and the bus depot all have been renovated.

In addition, the city purchased the downtown’s lone hotel out of bankruptcy and brought it back to life. Two flooded commercial and residential districts, New Bohemia and Kingston Village, now are full of life and growing next to downtown, which itself has welcomed a post-flood burst in building and housing. Also, across the river from downtown is the new riverfront amphitheater, which ingeniously doubles as a piece of the city’s coming flood protection system.

One thing about disasters: News reporters and cameras move on, and recovery and rebuilding take over.

And they take time: Years and years, day by day, out of the limelight.

In my annual State of the City Address in 2017, I told a short story I borrowed from a friend. In it, a man comes upon two stone cutters, both hard at work. One is cussing and swearing and the other has little to say. Each is asked what he is doing, and the first says he is doing what it looks like, cutting a stone. The second, disinterestedly, says he is cutting a stone for some sort of building.

Then the man approaches a third stone cutter who is smiling and whistling as he works. He sets aside his hammer and chisel when asked what he is doing, and, beaming, he proclaims, “I am building a cathedral.”

That is how I have felt as Cedar Rapids’ mayor, helping to direct the city’s recovery from the disaster that hit in 2008.

We never lost sight of the big picture—that we were rebuilding a city better than it ever had been, as if it were a cathedral. It is a remarkable story of partnership between the public and the private sectors and of a promise fulfilled.

As 2017 begins, Cedar Rapids is 1-1 with the river in eight years. We’ve evened the score.

Without a permanent flood protection system in place, though, a rematch very well may be in the offing. Who knows when. It may be this year, eight years from now, or years after that.

But we, as Cedar Rapids’ city leaders, have promised that permanent flood protection is coming. And we’re determined to make it more than a promise.

The protection system is being built now, piece by piece, year by year. It is work with a measure of hope: hope that funding for the protection’s completion beats the next disaster to town.

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