Published: August 27, 2009
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — It was more than a year ago that the core of this city was submerged to its rooftops, a result of record flooding on the Cedar River that caused an estimated $6 billion in damage — among the most costly natural disasters since Hurricane Katrina.
Some residents, like Sheila Roberston, 41, are still living in FEMA mobile homes. Ms. Roberston, center, puts her adopted son Ryan Jenney, 4, to sleep while her partner Joe Jenney, left, 44, and son Jordan Jenney, 18, watch TV behind her. More Photos »
The outpouring of attention toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, ratcheting up again now as the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, has not been seen here. In fact, the people of Cedar Rapids are feeling neglected.
The recovery here is only limping along as waterlogged buildings are still being gutted, thousands of displaced families remain in temporary housing, and large-scale demolition to make way for a new downtown has just begun.
Federal financing for long-term recovery is trickling in, with the government having committed money for about half of what the city says it needs. And only a fraction of that has actually arrived.
“We really feel that we are the forgotten disaster,” said Greg Eyerly, the city’s flood recovery director. “We don’t make sexy products. We make starch that goes into paper, we make foodstuffs, ingredients in crackers and cereal. We make ethanol. The sexiest thing we make is Cap’n Crunch. We’re not a beachfront property. We make an anonymous contribution to our country, and people forget about us.”
To be sure, Hurricane Katrina’s huge reach and a botched emergency response devastated a far greater swath of the country than did the flooding in the Midwest, and no one here is trying to make tit-for-tat disaster comparisons. No lives were lost in the flooding in Cedar Rapids, and the government’s initial response to the crisis was generally considered a success.
But over the long term, the tone has changed, and the feeling of neglect amid devastation is palpable now. Five weeks of severe weather in the summer of 2008 made disaster areas out of 85 of the state’s 99 counties.
“We’re not making a lot of noise about it,” said Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, reflecting on a sense of Midwestern stoicism. “We’re going about our business. That’s a determination that’s impressive, but it doesn’t attract attention.”
The delays in recovery have multiple causes. The city cannot agree with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the level of damage to the public buildings, and more than a thousand families do not know yet whether they will be bought out of flooded homes or whether their neighborhoods are coming back. And the sources of much the long-term recovery money — like the Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development — are not crisis-response agencies, and therefore do not operate at an emergency pace.
“We’re extremely thankful for the money, but we also know the turnaround time it takes to get the dollars here creates a lot of anxiety for disaster victims,” said Tina Potthoff, a spokeswoman for the Rebuild Iowa Office.
So far, Iowa has been promised $3.1 billion in federal assistance for housing, infrastructure and business recovery, but only $689 million has been distributed, and local officials estimate its damage need at something more like $8 billion to $10 billion. The state suffered $1.6 billion in infrastructure damage alone.
In Cedar Rapids, city officials estimate that they need close to $6 billion.
The slow pace of the money flow for long-term recovery has held up crucial decisions about what is going to be rebuilt in the city of 120,000 people. Whole communities are waiting to hear about buyouts and demolitions, new levees and flood plains. Many are in limbo, and the frustration level is rising. Some residents are still living in FEMA mobile homes. Even City Hall remains displaced.
The economic recession has only made a bad situation worse, drawing attention and perhaps dollars away from Iowa.
Still, Mike Papich, the owner of a funeral home wrecked in the flood, has decided to start rebuilding his house and business in the New Bohemia section, a patchwork of recovery and abandonment not far from the river.
“We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen over here, whether it will be needed for a new levee or flood wall or what,” said Mr. Papich, 50. “I told someone with the city, ‘I assume that since you’re giving me a building permit, that’s an assurance you won’t be taking my property.’ They said, ‘Not necessarily.’ So then I thought, What am I doing?”
Mr. Papich is financing his rebuilding plans with a low-interest emergency disaster loan from the Small Business Association and a grant from the state, two flood-recovery measures that have helped spur rebuilding.
“You hear one thing, then another thing,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions in Cedar Rapids.”
City and state officials say residents should prepare for a recovery that could span a decade.
Hundreds of houses in Cedar Rapids sit abandoned, similar to the way they were on June 13, 2008, when the Cedar River crested. Some have been gutted down to their stilts, awaiting repair but lending entire neighborhoods the feel of a ghost town.
Ms. Potthoff said state officials were creating a set of recommendations to suggest to the federal government how some agencies that do not normally respond to disasters might do so more quickly, as is generally the case now with the emergency management agency.
Kenneth Benning, 83, moved from an agency trailer to a new house on high ground last fall, but he is still waiting to hear what is to become of his flooded house — which he is maintaining and is expecting to pay taxes on — and its community.
“It’s so exasperating,” Mr. Benning said. “Every day you wonder what they’re going to come up with that you have to deal with. Here it is 14 months or better, and the city hasn’t made any move on the buyouts.”
The city says it is waiting for money that has already been approved to arrive from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the state, which will then distribute it. But those sorts of bureaucratic explanations do not go over well with flood victims.
“They’ve all got all kinds of excuses,” Mr. Benning said.
Meanwhile, people are getting to work. Shaun Hootman, 33, exemplifies the ambivalence that people here are experiencing. She has spent the last several days painting and refurnishing her mother’s flooded home, where she intends to live. Volunteers did some of the structural remodeling she could not afford.
“Things could come along faster,” Ms. Hootman said. “But over all, we can’t complain.”
Thought this would be interesting to post in the face of all the Katrina anniversary press. It is still bad in places here, the article doesn't exaggerate. I'd say ten years recovery is an underestimate...