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Receding Cedar River waters raise the hopes of flood victims
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Allen Crabtree
June 17, 2008

The waters from the worst flood to hit Cedar Rapids in recorded history have now started to recede.  Residents are beginning to return to their homes in 438 city blocks that had been evacuated when the Cedar River rose to record high levels.  For many, the return to their homes was a bitter sweet trip when they found what the flood waters had done.  Others, like Veronica Johnson, will have to wait a little longer until safety inspections are made and she is permitted to return.  She is understandably disappointed but remains hopeful that she will be allowed to return soon.  Johnson is thankful that none of her family was injured, and for the support that the American Red Cross has given to them in their time of need.

The worst flood in Cedar Rapids’ history

Veronica Johnson tells the American Red Cross how she was forced from her Cedar Rapids, Iowa home when the Cedar River flooded.
            Photo credit:  Allen Crabtree, American Red Cross
            Cedar Rapids, IA
Veronica Johnson tells the American Red Cross how she was forced from her Cedar Rapids, Iowa home when the Cedar River flooded. Photo credit: Allen Crabtree, American Red Cross Cedar Rapids, IA

Rains fell on Cedar Rapids without let up for a full week, raising the level of the Cedar River to the unprecedented level of 31.2 feet, far above the record levels from the 1993 floods.   The sound of the rain on the roof lulled Johnson to sleep at her home Tuesday night, but she awoke early on Wednesday morning to the frightening sound of a waterfall as water cascaded into her home.  The house is 6 blocks from the Cedar River, but looking out the window she found her house surrounded by flood waters.  She called her father. “Save me.  I am trapped here!” she pleaded.

Her father was able to drive to within a few blocks of her house and waded through the waist deep water to her front door.  With difficulty they opened the front door against the force of the water, and arm-in-arm they began the difficult walk back to high ground.  Johnson had on flip-flops and lost both of them in the flood waters, and the current was so strong that they had a hard time dodging floating timbers and a large dumpster sweeping by.

Johnson and her family took refuge at the Red Cross shelter set up at the Prairie High School south of Cedar Rapids along with several hundred other flood evacuees.  There they waited for the rains to stop and the flood waters to recede.   They wanted to get back to their home.

The flood zone has numerous hazards for returning residents

Her wait seemed agonizingly slow, but was necessary because of the dangers from the flood.  Nearly all of Cedar Rapids within the 500-year flood plain was under as much as 8 feet of brown dirty flood waters, and the fecund stench of river mud, sewage, fuel oil and garbage filled the air.  The cloying smells of mold and mildew will add to the smells in the weeks and months to come as residents struggle to clean out and rebuild. 

Veronica Johnson (2nd from left) asks the Iowa National Guard when she and her family can return to their home after she was forced from it when the Cedar River flooded.
            Photo credit:  Allen Crabtree, American Red Cross
            Cedar Rapids, IA
Veronica Johnson (2nd from left) asks the Iowa National Guard when she and her family can return to their home after she was forced from it when the Cedar River flooded. Photo credit: Allen Crabtree, American Red Cross Cedar Rapids, IA

Residents returning to areas that have been flooded are reminded to exercise extreme caution because of the hazards there.  They should get a tetanus shot if they haven’t had one recently, should stay out of contaminated flood waters, avoid electrical and gas lines, and be extremely careful of sharp objects that may lurk in the flood debris as they are cleaning up.  Homes and possessions can be replaced, but lives cannot.

"The American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Save the City, and other non-profit organizations like United Way are all here together,” said American Red Cross representative in Cedar Rapids Peter Teahen. “We were here before the storms, we're here with you now during this crisis, and we'll be here for months to come as the city begins its recovery phase."

On June 15, Fathers’ Day, the city dispatched strike teams of police, firefighters, utilities workers, and city employees into neighborhoods where flood waters had receded.  Teams checked on safety issues, including gas leaks, structural integrity, hazardous materials and air quality, to see if it was safe for residents to return.  They found flooded basements, collapsed walls and piles of debris, and many homes were not safe for people to return.  If a home was safe it was cleared and a green sticker placed on the door.

Until cleared, no one is allowed in the flooded areas because of the hazards.  Check points have been set up at every street around the area and Iowa National Guard troops turn away anyone trying to enter the flood zones without authorization.

Ten command posts were set up around the edge of the flooded areas, and residents gathered at noon on Fathers’ Day to see if their home had been cleared.  If listed, they were able to register with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department and received an arm band allowing them to return to their homes, under escort.  The flood zone is still a dangerous place, and residents are only able to visit their homes for a short window during the day to retrieve valuables.  They could not stay to start the clean up.  That would come later, once the area was safer.

Disappointing news, but hope for the future

“We just want to be able to go back to our house and see what the flood has done to it,” Johnson said.  “I also need to pick up some prescriptions for the family that I was not able to bring with me when I had to flee in all that water.”

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Johnson and her family arrived at the area at 7:00 a.m. full of hope that they could return home.  Learning from an Iowa National Guard soldier that no clearances would be issued until noon time was a bitter disappointment, but Johnson took it well.  She and her family returned to the Prairie High School Red Cross shelter for lunch and a somber Fathers’ Day celebration.

At noon, Johnson and her family returned to the Abbey Center at 520 11th Street NW, the command post for the flood sector where her home was located.  They joined a crowd of 200 people gathered around a large sign that listed the addresses cleared for reentry.  There was a long line of residents signing in to get their arm bands and await escorts to their neighborhood.

“Our address is not on the board,” said Johnson.  “They didn’t get to our neighborhood, and don’t know when they will.”

This was just another blow to her, and meant that she would have to return the next day, and the next, until her neighborhood had been cleared as safe to return.  It was a harsh reality to face..

“We only have to go a few blocks to get to our house from here,” she said.  “But it might as well be on the other side of the moon!  I am just thankful that none of us were injured during the flooding, and we have our health and will rebuild.  I am thankful that we don’t have any pets at home to worry about.  We have a lot to be thankful for, especially all the help and support we’ve received from the American Red Cross, but it is still disappointing to have to wait.”

Allen Crabtree is a volunteer from the Southern Maine Chapter of the American Red Cross and lives in Sebago, Maine where he is a writer, antiquarian book dealer, blueberry farmer, Chair of the  town Board of Selectman, and volunteer fire fighter.

All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year, disasters like floods and tornadoes by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster please do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation's blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization – not a government agency – and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at www.redcrosschat.org.

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