Wednesday, June 13, 2018

31.12 feet

Though I was living in Chicago at the time, I was in Cedar Rapids 10 years ago today to visit my folks for their June 14 anniversary. My boyfriend at the time and I had heard stories of looming flooding, and even though the rains and the swollen rivers diverted us north from highway 30 at Mt. Vernon and sent us into Cedar Rapids on Mt. Vernon Road, we still never believed Cedar Rapids could have serious flooding. I mean, it's CEDAR RAPIDS. I grew up here. How could anything bad happen?
By the time we finally got to my folks' house late on the 13th though, the flooding had become serious enough that the city's last intact water pumping station was in such danger of being breached that the urgent call went out on the news for volunteers to sandbag it. Though we'd had a 5-hour drive we wanted to go out and help, but by the time we had a quick bathroom break before heading for the door, the news announced that they'd already gotten all the sandbaggers they needed. Which was a clear harbinger of the resilience our city would soon show. But at the time it was dark and late and we were 32 blocks from the river so all we could do was go to bed and wait.
The next morning, the footage on the news was devastating. The river had crested at 31.12 feet--19 feet over flood stage--and our entire downtown was drowning, as were 1,300 blocks of the city on either side of the river. Office buildings and banks and stores and my beloved theaters were almost up to the tops of their doors in water. All three bridges that cross May's Island and connect the east and west sides of the city were completely submerged. The Time Check and Czech Village neighborhoods were destroyed, with many houses underwater to their rooflines. The highly elevated I-380 was the only way to get across town, though all of the entrance and exit ramps in the flood zone were submerged. We--like seemingly everyone else in the city--drove slowly along the highway and peered out our windows to survey the devastation as the flood waters rippled mere feet beneath us.
As the water slowly receded, the city reeled over the destruction of homes, the closing of businesses, the undermining of infrastructure ... but never the loss of spirit. The city leaped almost immediately into action to tear down what was unsalvageable, repair what was repairable, clean up what was messy and dangerous, reimagine new life and purpose for what was destroyed, and start to recover and relocate and rebuild ourselves into a newer and better and more thoughtfully redesigned shining city on the river. We now have our vibrant and ever-expanding NewBo neighborhood, we've literally picked up and moved an entire museum to higher ground, we've creatively and beautifully incorporated new levees and berms into inviting public spaces, we've used the opportunity to upgrade and restore historic buildings, we've turned our once-desolate-after-5:00 downtown into a destination area bustling with restaurants and entertainment ... and we've salvaged and restored and improved and polished up my beloved Paramount and Iowa (home of Theatre Cedar Rapids) theaters.
The flood was awful and heartwrenching and devastating. Many businesses never recovered. Many homes and families and lives have been forever changed. And our renaissance is far from complete. At any given time there are at least three massive construction/renovation projects happening in the downtown area, and I adjust my travel to and from work to check on them almost daily. Seriously. (Currently: The towering modern addition to the American Building, whatever the hell Skogman is going to build on the just-demolished Bever Building site (don't mess this up, Skogman--build something we can all appreciate and be proud of), the multi-lot demolition on Second Street between Second and Third Avenues, and the massive condo/apartment building that's covering more than a city block on the east side of I-380 at Diagonal Drive)
Aside from the before-and-after photos of my dad's office, where he thought two levels of concrete blocks would protect his antique roll-top desk from the floodwaters that eventually submerged his entire office past its ceiling, the pictures I'm posting here aren't mine. But they show the depth and breadth of the destruction we all faced and make a great reminder of how amazingly far we have come in the last ten years.
So happy floodiversary, Cedar Rapids! May we keep our recovery and flood-protection development speeding along forevermore. (And don't forget to wish my folks a happy 54th anniversary tomorrow.)

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