Thursday, June 12, 2008

Letter from Cedar Rapids

Our weekend in my home town was supposed to be a celebration of my folks' anniversary. And my sister and her husband's anniversary. And my sister's birthday. And Father's Day. June is an expensive month for me, and I was looking forward to treating everyone to an indulgent dinner at any of our favorite restaurants.

But instead we're just staying in and hanging out with each other. And watching the nonstop local news. Because in the last 18 hours, Cedar Rapids has turned into a mini New Orleans. The Cedar River breached its banks around noon on Thursday, and the city has lost staggering numbers of its landmarks. The courthouse. The jail. The veterans' coliseum with the massive Grant Wood stained glass window. The library. My beloved Paramount Theatre. My old second home, Theatre Cedar Rapids. The National Czech and Slovak Museum. My dad's office in one of the two highrises that dominate the Cedar Rapids skyline. Downtown proper is flooded -- in areas to the point of complete submersion -- at least eight blocks in either direction of the river. May's Island -- the mass of land in the middle of the river that holds the beautiful old federal buildings -- is completely under water, along with the three sets of bridges that cross it. It's just gone. The CRANDIC railroad bridge collapsed today with a load of train cars on it. As we speak, they're evacuating everyone in Mercy Hospital -- including its long-term care residents -- ten blocks away from the river. The entire Timecheck neighborhood -- home to countless low-income families -- was evacuated before it completely disappeared under water.

In less than a day, my home town as I know it has changed forever. Here's the photo that currently dominates the home page of the local paper's web site:

At this writing, though, nobody has been killed. And there are countless reports of volunteers showing up in the middle of the night to fill sandbags and direct traffic and open their homes to the newly homeless. Which is why I love my home town so much.

The domestic partner and I left sunny Chicago at 5:00 today, incredulous that there could be such distruction just a few hours away from our beautiful day ... and filled with trepidation about the weather that awaited us as we drove there. The drive was relatively uneventful, though there were deafening periods of torrential rain and entire city grids without power. Outlying towns like Lisbon and Mount Vernon were so black we didn't even realize we were driving through them. We were turned away from only two flooded roads by some very helpful, very wet volunteers. But we made it here in one piece and three huge Diet Cokes and some very tight hugs of relief from my mom.

The flooding has yet to hit its predicted crest, more than 31 feet over its standard level. At least I think that's what they said on the news tonight. I was still a little overwhelmed when they explained it. But all we can do now is sleep. We'll get a better understanding of the devastation in the morning.

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