Iowa project follows successful New Orleans 'ecu-build'

CWS-led effort will return flood-displaced families

Fred Visser and Bonnie Vollmering
Fred Visser, of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, discusses the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rebuilding project with CWS's Bonnie Vollmering, inside a flood-damaged home.
Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

By Matt Hackworth/CWS

CWS-led effort will return flood-displaced families

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Beside a gentle bend in the Cedar River, across the broad water from a stand of silos topped by a neon QUAKER OATS sign, sits one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, named Time Check.

Sidewalks guarded by ancient oaks and poplars are lined by stoic homes with porches, a perfect perch for parents to watch children play.

Yet few are here. Most of the homes have been gutted, their rough-sawn bones laid bare to daylight after the Cedar pushed past its banks -- and a 20-foot sandbag wall -- to wreck lives in this and dozens of other communities, June 14, 2008.

Even though 5,390 Cedar Rapids homes were destroyed, it is as if this disaster, and a spate of violent tornadoes that preceded it, has been all but forgotten.

“The disasters here in Iowa have fallen off the radar screen for many people but the needs are still great,” said Rev. Michael Stadie, disaster response manager for Lutheran Services in Iowa.  “The economic crisis and other disasters have drawn attention elsewhere.”

As enormous needs have eclipsed attention, Church World Service will bring volunteers and resources from across the U.S. and Canada to Cedar Rapids April 12 through May 21, 2010.

“With damage estimates at anywhere between $8 billion and $10 billion, a faith response is critical,” said Bonnie Vollmering, CWS associate director for domestic emergency response. “We will need to work together if the needs of those having the hardest time recovering will be met.”

Dubbed “Neighborhood: Cedar Rapids,” the rebuilding effort brings together at least 10 agencies to replicate CWS’s “Neighborhood: New Orleans” ecumenical rebuilding project – or ecu-build, which returned a dozen families home after lengthy displacement following Hurricane Katrina.

“We are 18 months out from the flood events, and people told us it would be 3 to 5 to 10 years for recovery,” said Stephen Schmitz, the executive director of the Linn Area Long Term Recovery Coalition. “People, for the most part, come in to our recovery center with hope of recovery mixed with frustration of process. We focus on the hope and work to relieve the frustration.”

As frost finds purchase on unrepaired, bare walls and roofs for a second winter, frustration is understandable. With the sheer number of homes damaged in the flood, Schmitz said families are coping as best they can – living with relatives, in undamaged parts of their homes or in the dwindling supply of rental housing available.

“There was a significant affordable housing issue that reached crisis proportions because of the flood,” Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Jeff Capps said.

The lower-middle class houses in Time Check reflect an older neighborhood, healthy before the flood. The streets have the feel of a Midwest working community, where families raise children and retirees don’t leave.

Some of those families haven’t returned, leaving boarded-up homes bordered by yellow CAUTION tape flickering in the wind. Others are determined to make a comeback, putting federal and non-profit assistance into rebuilding what they had.

The decision to rebuild or not is out of many family’s hands. A pending decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about where to build a proposed levee is anticipated in the coming months, which could change the layout of where this city of 128,000 lives.

Even if the proposed levee splits neighborhoods in the interests of flood control, needs will not change. “The biggest need is housing,” Stadie said. “Those affected by the flooding need emotional support, a promise for the future.”


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