It's a surreal image, almost whimsical at first, particularly if you don't grasp the scale of it.
Viewed from the air, it's an inland sea, juxtaposed with a city's sprawl. It's an American Venice, tree lined canals, each building an island! Surely if you were down at the waterline, you'd see sturdy men in striped shirts, expertly guiding their flatboats to their destinations.
But down at the waterline, the truth is very different. This is a ghost town. No sounds of commerce or rush of traffic here. There is no power, there is no water -- well, there is water, but not a drop to drink.
Does it look familiar?
But this is not New Orleans after Katrina. This is Cedar Rapids, Iowa, less than a week ago.
We're just kind of at God's mercy right now, so hopefully people that never prayed before this, it might be a good time to start.
-- Linn County (Iowa) Sheriff Don Zeller
This has been a trying spring for the Midwest. In St. Louis we've endured repeated waves of flooding, several hailstorms, and even a rash of small earthquakes. Relative to the rest of the state, we've had it easy; southwest Missouri has seen numerous tornadoes and softball-sized hail nearly every weekend for the past six weeks.
But that pales in consideration to what Iowa continues to suffer.
A nearly constant inundation of rain, beginning months ago, falling onto soil already saturated by above average snowfalls, produced conditions ripe for flooding. When the rain falls, it is hard, and persistent. Flood waters are past 100-year levels, surging into 500-year flood plains.
And if the rain weren't enough, it comes in storms, ripping away livelihoods and communities. The rain terrorizes slowly, but straight-line winds and tornadoes ravage whole counties in mere seconds.
Nowhere is this one-two punch more evident than in Parkersburg.
It was on us so fast. I mean, I just remember loud...It looked like half the world was blowing in...and then everything went black and it was quiet.
-- Dana Anderson, Parkersburg, IA
On May 25, a tornado rated an EF-5 -- the highest possible rating -- smashed through Parkersburg and New Hartford, Iowa. Winds over 200 mph scoured buildings and trees down to the earth, injuring scores and killing seven.
But that wasn't enough. As the south side of Parkersburg lies stripped and scarred by the tornado's fury, the northside of Parkersburg faces the unrelenting threat of flooding. This little town is getting squeezed like no other.
Then, just last week, in the midst of a flood crisis that was sweeping across nearly every one of Iowa's 99 counties, an even greater tragedy: a tornado ripped through a Boy Scout campsite, killing four young boys. There was little warning or shelter. The storm struck like a scythe, sweeping trees and buildings into the sky and furiously smashing them down again. Boys watched their friends die; the survivors tended to their injured friends with what meager supplies they had. They called it weather; it sounded like war.
We’re expected to pass the 100-year flood level and flows will continue to increase. Let me repeat that: flows will continue to increase.
-- Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey
I confess to having fallen in love with Iowa. I first experienced this most thoroughly Midwestern of states several years ago, when my sister in law married an Iowa boy up in Spencer. We camped by Lake Okoboji for a week. They eventually moved down to Coralville, and we visited more often.
But the real epiphany came the first summer I went for the Iowa Summer Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. You can't talk about it without mentioning Iowa; it's intrinsic. The two summers I participated have become formative events for me, akin to splashing in a creative fountain of youth. I forged and strengthened friendships, grew as a writer and a person, and marveled at the cosmopolitan oasis set in the middle of cornfields and hog farms.
That's why seeing this picture nearly broke my heart.
This is the Mayflower dorm, home to myself and fellow Intrepidites for two unforgettable weeks. It was the refreshing oasis after a long day tromping across campus under withering heat and humidity. It was the writers' commune where we created and slashed and howled at our classmates and dared to prove we could do better. It was the speakeasy where beer and wine flowed copiously until the wee hours, fueling our muses. It was where I learned to play that most Iowan of games, "Pass the Pigs."
The normal banks of the Iowa River are so far away they can't be seen in that picture. And, despite the wall of sandbags visible around the building's base, the river won on Saturday. The water also crashed into the basement of the English-Philosophy Building, home to our classrooms. Only yards from the riverbank, it was one of sixteen other campus buildings that fell to the encroaching water.
Just pray and hope there's something when you go back.
-- Don Webster, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
It's like that all over the state. And nearly everywhere in Iowa where nature is leaving a savage wake, I know people. I know people in Des Moines, watching expectantly to see if levees hold, if their downtown will succumb like Cedar Rapids. I know my sister in law, now in Mason City, getting by without drinking water for the better part of a week, and watching the stream in her back yard grow higher each day. I know professors in Iowa City, forced to turn students away because the river has claimed their classrooms.
But I also know that Mayflower will not wash away. It is a sturdy building, in a state full of sturdy people. They have put their backs into their work, and though not everything will be saved, the better part of it will be, and with it the resolve to begin again. Next summer, Boy Scouts will camp under cloudless skies, and the streets of Iowa City will be flooded with eager writers seeking inspiration.
They will be wise to find it in the resilient spirit of the community around them.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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6.18.08 @ 4:07a
My prayers for everyone affected. God Bless.
6.18.08 @ 7:43a
Well done, Russ.
The Red Cross categorizes disasters to a level of six. 9/11 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were classified as level six.
Iowa's combination of tornadoes and flooding in the past month puts the state at level five.
Now, here's the hard part:
The American Red Cross has run out of money for disaster response and is asking for your help.
Leslie Anthony of the Quad City chapter says the National Disaster Relief fund is now borrowing money to cover the expense of its flood response. The organization has spent $15 million so far across the Midwest, but has only raised $3.2 million. The agency did get a big boost Tuesday, with a million dollar pledge from John Deere Foundation.
You can send donations to any local Red Cross chapter earmarked to the National Disaster Relief Fund.
The folks of Cedar Rapids, New Hartford, Parkersburg, and other communities across the state thank you.
6.18.08 @ 7:49a
great commentary, russ. vivid reporting.
6.18.08 @ 8:45a
Mayflower the dorm, unlike The Mayflower the boat, is NOT supposed to be at sea.
Destruction of the familiar always hits the heart hardest.
michelle von euw
6.18.08 @ 11:42a
Excellent reporting, Russ. Thanks for making it all so real through your incredible prose.
6.18.08 @ 11:52a
Wonderful profile of a state and a disaster, Russ. It's easy to make a Red Cross donation on line. Please do so, Intrepidites. If we can support people in Myanmar (where God only knows where the aid is going) and China, we can take care of our close friends at home.
Having lived in Iowa City 14 years and having friends there to this day, I have a special place in my heart for the state that has a population slightly less than that of the city where I now live.
6.18.08 @ 1:23p
Thoughts and prayers are with you, Russ. I second Margot.
6.18.08 @ 1:38p
Much appreciated, as a considerable portion of all of that water is on its way here. Along the Mississippi from northwest Illinois down to southern Missouri, people are starting to sandbag where they can, and evacuate where they can't. Water levels are forecast to match or exceed 1993 levels in many communities along the river, including here in St. Louis.
About the only bright spot is that the Missouri River has not seen the flooding that the Mississippi's northern tributaries have, so our area will not have the catastrophic see-it-from-orbit flooding that was present 15 years ago, even if the Mississippi actually crests higher.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the waters may be receding, but it's slow going. And over the next week or two, it's going to be one stark revelation after another regarding just how much damage was done, as this big watery blanket gets pulled away.
Edited to add: I just read in the Iowa City Press-Citizen that U of I is pulling sandbags from where they're no longer needed, piling them on trucks and shipping 'em south to reinforce the new "front lines." They moved 450 tons of sandbags yesterday (Tuesday). They need help doing this as quickly as possible, so if you're in the area and reading this, please do consider joining the effort.
6.19.08 @ 12:08p
I just saw film on the news this a.m. on flooding in the St. Louis area. Stay dry and safe, Russ.
6.19.08 @ 11:52p
Fuckin' 'eh bubba.
If there's anything I can do to help, you know I will, and you know how to reach me.