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A Year After Flooding, Iowa Limps To Recovery


A year ago today, torrential rains in eastern Iowa turned serious flooding into catastrophe. The Cedar River overflowed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Water surged through the streets. It inundated 10 square miles and damaged thousands of homes and businesses.

NPR's David Schaper covered those floods and now, he's returned to find out how Cedar Rapids is recovering.

(Soundbite of a motorboat)

DAVID SCHAPER: One year ago, Cedar Rapids fire Captain Craig Dirks and firefighter Jason Andrews steered a motorboat through water 10 to 12 feet deep through the neighborhood that housed their fire station.

Captain CRAIG DIRKS (Iowa Fire Department): This is our main thoroughfare to the northwest side, Ellis Boulevard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And it is very sad to see it right now.

SCHAPER: At the time, they couldn't even begin to think about the cleanup and what would become of this neighborhood. One year later, outside his now-shuttered firehouse and among flood-ravaged homes, Captain Dirks says the scene is still surreal.

Capt. DIRKS: Normally, these houses were all occupied, and it was a normal neighborhood. And now, it's an empty shell of, you know, broken-up houses. So it's a really weird feeling just being here.

SCHAPER: In downtown Cedar Rapids, 80 percent of the businesses that flooded are back, but the recovery lags far behind on the west side of the river, the mostly low and moderate income residential areas. Few residents here had flood insurance. Many were close to a mile away from the river and saw no need. Some won't be able to rebuild. Those closest to the river will be bought out. Others will lose their homes to new flood walls and levies. But some of those who want to rebuild are running into trouble.

Mr. CHUCK SMITH(ph): Welcome to my house. It's better than it was.

SCHAPER: Thirty-four-year-old Chuck Smith and his girlfriend had been in this house less than a year when the floodwaters filled it up. FEMA gave Smith a little more than $28,000, a fraction of what's needed for repairs, so he is relying on friends and is taking on much of the rebuilding work himself.

Mr. SMITH: The only things we've had done by professionals is the electrical. I did all the painting. I did the subfloor. That took me 36 hours. I did that straight.

SCHAPER: Smith says it's hard work he can only do in fits and starts. He says he's fried and beginning to run out of money.

Mr. SMITH: It's weird because a month ago, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and now, it's flickering off again because I'm so tired.

SCHAPER: Smith has no idea when he'll be able to finish the house. Others in Cedar Rapids aren't waiting to rebuild but to move on.

Ms. JAYLEN BANK(ph): Our house is red-tagged because the foundation has been severely compromised. So we haven't been inside in a year.

SCHAPER: Jaylen Bank shows where water pressure caved in a basement wall of her home. Fixing it, she says, would cost almost what the house is worth. Her yard and her house are littered with brightly colored signs pleading for government help. Help us, Obama, says one. Cedar Rapids, the forgotten city, reads another.

The city has promised buyouts backed by federal funds for those who can't rebuild, but the issue is clouded with uncertainty. And in the meantime, Bank says her life is on hold.

Ms. BANK: We can't make plans for next year because we don't know if we're going to be bought out, if we're still going to have to stay, you know, around the city to deal with this. We just live day to day.

SCHAPER: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan visited Cedar Rapids this week, bringing more than $500 million in new flood recovery funds for Iowa, but who gets buyouts and when may take months to sort out. And Cedar Rapids officials say much more money is needed.

Meantime, this city will commemorate the one year anniversary of the record flood crest tomorrow with a solemn ceremony along the river in Cedar Rapids.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.