Monday, June 16, 2008

We are back from Iowa

In the legendary floods of 1993, the Cedar River rose to the point where it was just lapping at the support beams of its bridges in my hometown, Cedar Rapids. But it stayed within its banks. The real destruction came from the rising water table, which filled basements with water, left lawns across the city squishy and wet, and caused giant trees to become so waterlogged that they snapped at their bases and crashed into houses and cars.

The flood damage of 2008 is the opposite. The lawns are fine. The trees are standing. But more than 1,300 city blocks within a mile of the river are completely submerged. See the horizontal stripe of water near the top of the photo below this paragraph? That's the river. The little tufts of buildings just left of center in the middle of the river are the veterans' coliseum and the courthouse and the jail that occupy the charmingly landscaped four-block stretch known as May's Island, where horse thief and general roustabout Osgood Shepard purportedly settled what was to become Cedar Rapids in 1837:

Here's a New York Times photo taken this weekend at the height of the flooding. The skyways in downtown Cedar Rapids connected buildings at the second floor:

This is the jewelry store where I bought our engagements rings last July. The owners are old friends of mine, and they still can't even get in the store to get a sense of what their future holds:

The old Roosevelt Hotel (in the foreground) was a magical place for me as a kid. It had a subterranean barber shop that I thought was pretty cool because it had no windows! And down the hall from the barber shop was an Atlantis-themed swimming pool with columns and statuary and giant palm fronds. I'm sure it was a remnant of a 1960s makeover, and looking back I'm sure it was probably horribly tacky, but it was glorious and theatrical and positively magical to me when I was a little proto-gay. The building was converted to apartments more than a decade ago and I haven't been in it since. Now I'm sure that whatever was in the basement is gone for good:

Here's a shot down First Avenue, the city's main drag. The river officially crosses under First Avenue four blocks from where you see the water starting. The Roosevelt Hotel is hidden behind the giant concrete structure on the right. Behind that is my dad's office. Or what's left of it. There is talk that his office building -- a 20ish-story highrise -- is so compromised it may have to be torn down:

Here's that same spot on First Avenue taken from a parking ramp that we snuck into ... and subsequently got kicked out of by the National Guard. The building to the left with the asymmetrical white paint is the back of Theatre Cedar Rapids, my second home when I lived in Cedar Rapids. Some of my favorite memories ever are from the shows I've done there, including Forever Plaid, A Chorus Line, Big River, Little Shop of Horrors and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Theatre Cedar Rapids had a fabulous theater organ with a console covered in black velvet and rhinestones. Early word is that the organ was saved, though everything below stage level was completely flooded. I haven't heard anything even that positive about the mighty Wurlitzer in the architecturally extravagant Paramount Theatre a couple blocks closer to the river. Early word has it that the organ was completely submerged, along with a great deal of the first floor of the theater.

* * * * *

When the domestic partner and I arrived in Cedar Rapids late on Thursday night, a call was going out on the local TV stations for volunteers to help sandbag the city's last uncompromised water processing plant. 20 minutes later -- the time it took us to carry our stuff in the house, grab something to eat and run to the bathroom -- the stations were announcing that more volunteers had arrived than they could use so everyone else should just stay home. Which tells you everything you really need to know about Cedar Rapids.

The sandbagged plant survived the night, but the other three that serve Cedar Rapids were flooded. Which left the whole city on extremely limited water use: no bathing, no dishwashing, only judicious flushing. Fortunately, my sister and her husband's house had enough water activity in the basement that their sump pump produced gallon after gallon of water we could use to flush away our ... um ... flushable stuff.

* * * * *

The initial purpose of our trip to Cedar Rapids was a three-day celebration of my folks' anniversary, my sister and her husband's anniversary, my sister's birthday and Father's Day. The restaurant we'd planned to go to was in the historic Amana colonies, half an hour away on roads we didn't trust to be above water. So we went to Plan B: a picnic on my sister's front lawn featuring pizzas from my favorite pizza chain and an ice cream cake that was so delicious I would happily buy bigger jeans if I could eat it for every meal the rest of my life:

The next night I took everyone to the Vernon Inn, known locally as The Greek Place. It's a charming little restaurant with delicious Greek food near the house where we grew up, so it's impossible to go there without running into at least 10 people we know. Even when the city is under water. Since the restaurant was on water restrictions too, they served us our fancy anniversary dinner on paper plates. Which was obviously fine, but I thought it was a little rude that they served us asparagus in the middle of a no-flush injunction.

* * * * *

I was scheduled to run 11 miles on Saturday morning with the AIDS Marathon program, so I dutifully got up early and ran 5.5 miles out and back (see how good I am at math?) with my sister's next-door-neighbor on the scenic and well-manicured Cedar Valley Nature Trail. It cuts a clean, straight swath north of town through endless corn and soybean fields, many of which were sadly buried under pools of standing water. I took this picture at our starting point to show you how relentlessly straight the path is, but my camera phone just doesn't offer much depth of focus:

Here we are at the end, having triumphantly returned from running 11.5 miles (because we got to talking and missed our turnaround) and stinking like pigs in a city that won't let us shower. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon: some friends who live outside the city limits get all their water from a private well, and after the run, my family took turns luxuriating in their shower and changing clothes in front of a big window facing a dense woods.

* * * * *

I've been writing this post in fits and starts all weekend. I apologize if the time references jump around confusingly. But I'm pleased to report that at this writing, the waters have receded enough that I just received this picture of the Alliant Energy tower a block away from the river. It had been submerged to its second floor, and now the sidewalk is exposed again and people are allowed to come back and start surveying the damage. But look how the surging water blew out windows and tore through drywall and left absolute carnage in its wake:

It's devastating to see -- and awe-inspiring to contemplate -- what running water is capable of doing. But my little town is resilient and its people are some of the nicest you'll ever know and though there is a long, ugly journey in front of everyone, I have every confidence Cedar Rapids will emerge better than ever.

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