By Heather Comander Rast
On June 12, 2008, a 500-year flood covered the midwest. The rising Mississippi River broke high-water records up and down the Iowa and Illinois shore, cresting as high as 12 feet above flood stage in some places. Estimates place the cost of the damage at over $1 billion dollars, and concerns included crop damage, toxic remnants that were washed into neighborhoods, future mosquito invasions, and maintaining supplies of clean drinking water.
Heather Comander Rast, daughter of Walton County Commissioner Sara Comander, is a resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Heather, her husband, Scott, and three children were eyewitnesses to one of the worst natural disasters of modern times. This is her story.
Sometimes I am humbled by the words and deeds of people I’ve never met.
At the close of this July Fourth holiday, my drive to work took me through a small neighborhood located on the banks of the Cedar River in northwest Cedar Rapids, IA. Over the years, I’ve found the area to be a quiet one, offering refuge to deer in search of drink and succulent grazing. Now the once-raging flood waters have receded, and once again the waterway flows lazily along its bed through downtown, on south to Missouri and rivers beyond. I suppose the deer might wander back in time, with the violence of storms, current, and encroaching water now gone.
The water has disappeared from the river park, the plots of community vegetable gardens, the streets, and the school bus depot. It no longer flows through government buildings, food manufacturing and milk processing plants. Yes, the water is gone. But left behind is almost unfathomable destruction and waste.
The news clips on national television, the online photos, and even this story truly don’t adequately tell the story about how water – a life-giving necessity! – devastated the Iowa communities of Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City during the month of June.
Basic road crew detail on my commute route took about a week and a half, so I used a detour each day to get to and from my office. It’s clear that most of the debris has either been piled into staggering towers along the roadsides or pushed into what remains of lawns. In that respect, the road is clear. But it feels like a war zone. Adding to the surreal feeling seeing of roofs without houses, couches jammed through windows, and a twisted cast-iron bench lying in the middle of a driveway are the softer everyday elements – a child’s toy, a well-loved bicycle. Somehow seeing those items, incongruous among rusted water heaters and crumpled metal siding, makes the situation tougher to mentally process.
My family was one of the blessed and fortunate ones. Living in the country with our own well and powered by an REC rather than the city utilities, we were forced to remain in our home for two days because all land routes were flooded and had been closed. While inconvenient and certainly disconcerting, we were safe and at no risk. We were glued to the television and radio for reports.
Some colleagues of mine were not as fortunate. When a 500-year flood plain is breached, the danger zone knows few boundaries. In one small section of the Cedar Rapids area named Palo, 390 of 400 homes sustained damage either due to breached water or massive sewage backup. In all, Cedar Rapids alone saw over 10,000 people evacuated and a flood footprint of over 12 square blocks. The force of the water tore down bridges and wiped out grain elevators. It’s estimated that over 4,000 homes will have to be razed. They stayed as empty shells. I saw recliners from a 100-plus-year-old family furniture company swiftly floating along a downtown street and water just where you’d never ever think it would be.
I doubt any family is ever prepared to have every material possession, every asset and treasured tangible memory simply eradicated. In addition to being adrift and at a loss, these families also had to scramble to find alternative or temporary housing. Pay for both a mortgage and rent? The odds are against a positive outcome. An equation of loss, financial uncertainty, mass confusion, and murky procedure sets the stage for community unrest.
The irony, the heart-swelling irony of the situation, is that for Cedar Rapids, clean-up has proven to be a “we” thing. It starts with a grass-roots coordinated effort called “Flood of Hope,” shifts to people pouring into Goodwill and the Salvation Army with donated items, people opening their homes to others. It grew to include community clean-up days where 100 houses were swept through in less than four hours, thanks to hardworking and focused supporters. Students at the university sandbagged for days, after the semester was over. Workers donated their PTO time so that fellow employees affected by the flood could take the time they needed, without fear of also suffering a loss in salary. The scope of assistance extended to farmers lending land for temporary debris dump sites and the Red Cross distributing lunch and dinner to those in need.
Perhaps the most poignant sight, in my mind, was one I saw today. I don’t ever want to forget it.
An older home, likely belonging to retired couple, looked like it belonged in the opening of a horror movie. Gaping holes where doors and windows once stood. A pink sign from FEMA taped to the siding declared the property uninhabitable as it glared out at the street.
But shining through the downed limbs, black grime, and broken hearts stood a proud American flag, waving in the gentle breeze. I’ve never felt more humbled than by that single stalwart act of standing true, standing firm, and silently vowing to prevail over hardship.
This is not a time for Iowans to argue, complain, or confuse the matters. Nothing and no one could have prevented the wreckage and widespread loss. But even when things seem at their worst, we’ve raised neighbor with neighbor and given of our hearts, minds, wallets, and backs.
So, I am humbled by the generosity of my fellow community-members, and the families and companies who refuse to be daunted.
When we wonder why bad things may happen to good people, maybe the answer is simple. Because good people will continue to be good people and they will inspire others to be good, too, by providing them with examples of strength, courage, perseverance, resolution and a flood of true faith.
WATERED-DOWN root beer is all that’s available at this family-owned restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, according to Walton County native Heather Comander Rast and family.