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A Real Town with a Huge Problem--How the Media Ignored the June 2008 Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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Sometimes it is unfortunate but true that we measure the amount of concern about a real problem by the amount of media coverage it gathers. We often say if it were so important, why didn’t I hear about it? Well, perhaps this latest round of financial bad news has opened our eyes to what many media critics have been saying for a long time—the media chooses badly in terms of what they cover. It is time to realize that they cannot be trusted. Their lack of careful attention to what is important has caused irreparable damage to our public well being.


With that thought in mind, I traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in September in order to see for myself just what would happen if someone appeared saying they were interested in covering the town’s recovery from the flooding. I had followed the local coverage of the storm and the flooding in the online version of the local paper, The Gazette, The storm and the rising waters hit Cedar Rapids causing what has been called a 500-year flood. What this meant in terms of numbers, the statistics of the damage and the resulting financial crises it caused, along with the very real human disasters, were covered briefly by the major papers and then ignored. When the national media turn away, it is easier for the federal government’s lack of concern to go unreported.


I felt frustrated that after three months there was no further coverage anywhere in the country of the flooding in Iowa. That didn’t mean that there were not things to report on but only that the story had lost its currency. Then, coincident with Hurricane Ike chewing up the Gulf of Mexico and causing horrible damage not just in Texas but all the way up into the Midwest, I got in my car and drove to Iowa. Along the way, as the rains and wind hit in Pennsylvania and Ohio and flooded out roads in Illinois and the radio blasted with the stories out of Galveston and Houston, my mind kept wondering how long the coverage of that storm would go on for? Would we be informed of how they were going about rebuilding their towns and cities?


Once I arrived in Cedar Rapids, I realized I needed to speak to those who were going to be making the decisions about how the town would be rebuilt, how questions of water and land use would be resolved, etc. My good friends, Steven and Megan Ginsberg, arranged a meeting with a number of elected and concerned citizens to come and speak with me on Sunday, September 21.


I wanted to talk about the 400 city blocks of destroyed housing, the completely devastated downtown and the ravages of the water itself on the health and environment of this area. I wanted to learn too about the cultural issues and how the storms and the flooding had affected the health and well being of the people in the whole area.


When I first arrived in Cedar Rapids, on Thursday, September 18, the drive through the downtown revealed a real dead zone. There was nothing going on but unlike other towns whose downtowns have become actual ghost towns, Cedar Rapids’ had been vibrant.  Most of the buildings were boarded up looking like large boxes that had the marks of the flood waters high on their walls. The Cedar River had raced through this downtown and destroyed a large swath of it. In addition, the water had poured over 400 city blocks of housing, causing the destruction of about 2,000 homes. In addition to this urban loss was the rural loss, of about $3 billion of corn and soybean acreage, not to mention the devastation of the land itself. You can see photos in the papers of what was once farmland that now has completely lost its topsoil. The ground is covered with rocks and has hardened with its exposure to the sun.


The flood waters crested at 31 feet. Yet, given the extent of this disaster, given how extraordinary, historically it was, the lack of outside concern has hit the town and the towns around it hard.


When I drove through the Time Check area where the damage to homes was the worst, I saw block after block of destroyed housing. The area was in a state of shock but it was an organized disaster: Refrigerators sat at curbsides with their doors off; houses had color-coded Xs on them (some were slated for demolition); there was no mess, no random debris lying about. I saw people working on some of the houses; on their faces were the looks I had seen from another era. They resembled the men and women in Walker Evans’ photos from the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The etched out cheeks and deep sunken eyes of the men and women who looked up as I drove by reminded me of how awful it is to lose one’s home and belongings. As another friend who had also driven through there said to me, it looked like a war zone.


The promised meeting convened that Sunday, September 21 at Elmcrest Country Club. In attendance were Kay Halloran, Mayor of Cedar Rapids; Brian Fagan, Mayor pro temps; Linda Langston, member of the Board of Supervisors—Linn County, Iowa—all elected officials—and Peggy Boyle Whitworth, past Executive Director of Brucemore—Iowa’s only property belonging to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and who is now closely affiliated with the Obama campaign in Iowa and her son Patrick; Doug Neumann, President/CEO of Cedar Rapids Downtown District; and Jen Neumann, interim communications director of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce as well as a partner in deNovo, an alternative marketing firm along with Steve and Megan Ginsberg as well as Steve’s father Herman Ginsberg all of Ginsberg Jewelers, a four-generation business that had been located in the downtown and destroyed by the flood.


That meeting revealed to me pretty quickly that not only was there more than this one meeting could cover, but that the kind of coverage that was needed must in some way be ongoing. It also became quickly apparent that all the participants were eager to help me to get the word out about all that they were doing to rebuild, restore and revitalize a very important part of our country.


As I learned at that meeting there were broken promises to this town by our federal government to the tune of $26 million in promised relief that had at that point amounted to only $200,000 in received funding and that the town had been required to support the Army Corps of Engineers’ work to assess the damage because the Corps’ budget year had ended and they had run out of funds.


I quickly noted that an endless number of articles could come out of our meeting and that beginning in no special order but just listening to them there were the articles to write on the rebuilding of the downtown and how those decisions were going to be made. Then there was also a need to study the effects of the flood on the watershed. We could not overlook the increased mental health issues affecting the town, or the kinds of decisions that would have to be made about restoring affordable housing, or the concerns they had about the education of children who had been displaced from their neighborhood schools.


Each topic opened up another avenue of concern. For example, there was now evidence that the traumatic effects of the flood had not yet healed as represented in the increased rates of suicidal behavior, the rise of STDs and the displacement of a large segment of the population due to homelessness. On the other end of the scale was the fact that many of the arts organizations had also been displaced by the flood and would have to find alternative venues. For example, the newly named Orchestra Iowa whose former home, the Paramount Theatre, built in 1928 and listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, had been destroyed in the flood along with its offices next door. For the first time, they performed on the lawn at Brucemore, a former grand residence and since 1981 the historic landmark estate and museum in Cedar Rapids. On that night, the arts community and the music community were cooperating and creating something new.


And so the more they talked and I listened to their plans and goals, the more I realized that there was something important going on in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that we all needed to know about. Due to the flood’s devastation, they were making decisions that would impact those around them for decades to come. How they make those decisions seems truly important to all of us. Thus I close by saying, more to follow. 

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Deborah Emin is the founder of the publishing company, Sullivan Street Press ( She is also the impressario of the Itinerant Book Show as well as the program director of the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, NY. Her (more...)
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