After the Water Has Receded: Perspectives on Flood Recovery

25 Sep
nat guard

The National Guard responds to the Colorado flooding. Photo courtesy of the National Guard through Flickr’s Creative Commons.

In 2008, many parts of Iowa were hit with devastating flooding. Cities, towns and main streets were swallowed whole by unstoppable tides of water, mud and muck. Iowa’s second largest city Cedar Rapids, pop. 122,000, had a crest 20 feet above flood stage, covering 14 percent of the city and 10 square miles of downtown. More than 5,000 residential properties took on flood water, displacing 1,800 residents and 19,000 employees. 310 municipal facilities were damaged including City Hall, Central Fire Station and the Police Department.

In the days, weeks and months following the flooding – which caused an estimated $7 billion in damages and is considered the 5th worst natural disaster in United States history – something extraordinary happened. City and County leadership and staff banded together with residents, human service organizations, property owners and merchants to begin the long process of rebuilding together, “better than ever”.

The following stories and recovery strategies were written specifically for the Downtown Colorado Inc. newsletter by Cedar Rapidians who personally weathered the 2008 flood. Just as friends from Grand Rapids, Michigan and New Orleans, LA told countless Iowans who lost jobs, homes, livelihoods and memories in the murky flood waters of 2008, it does get better and the only way forward, is together:

For City/Town Leadership and Staff:

Cedar Rapids benefited from the quality of the community that existed at the time of our disaster, one rich in a history of collaboration. Flood recovery became no exception, with the creation of the Recovery and Reinvestment Coordinating Team (RRCT) within a few days of the river crest. The RRCT was made up of the leaders of all community organizations and local governments, and met first thing in the morning, daily, for months to accelerate the community’s response through identifying problems, collaborating to reach solutions, and providing a coordinated response.  These relationships served to also provide a unified response with state leadership and the congressional delegation.

The City’s elected officials also demonstrated their leadership by setting these priorities just days following the disaster:

•                Improve flood protection to better protect homes & businesses

•                Rebuild high-quality and affordable workforce neighborhoods

•                Restore full business vitality

•                Preserve our arts and cultural assets

•                Maintain our historic heritage

•                Assure that we can retain and attract the next generation workforce

Also significantly important for our success in the first weeks following the disaster was ensuring that the city government continued to serve our entire community, even as resources were challenged with flood response efforts.

For County/Regional Leadership and Staff:

  • Honesty in the aftermath of any disaster is critical. It is important to acknowledge how bad things are, what will be happening in the coming months to assist in recovery and to acknowledge there is a path to recovery. Recovery from floods is long, hard, dirty work. Not all will make it. Critical to long-term sustainability is finding the support systems, both financial and emotional, that give you the best chance of success.
  • Work with your Chamber and local government…to quickly put assessment teams together as to the safety of buildings. Also, make sure you have a list of respected and reliable business partners to assist with the clean up. Many will be from out of town due to the large nature of the clean up effort. Use those business partners who were not impacted to assist in the vetting of outside companies who will be coming into your community.
  • Be patient with your local government systems. They are often as overwhelmed as you are. Seek clear information, and work with them to set key deadlines for response.
  • Document everything no matter how small. The ability to recover money either through insurance or through public assistance at FEMA is directly linked to how well you document damages, as well as money spent through the whole clean up and recovery process.
  • Take time to assess what the new normal might look like. Take breaks along the way so that you can sustain yourself through the long-term recovery process. Be attentive to your staff and family needs. Exhaustion can creep up. Stress can overwhelm.  A variety of support systems are needed to successfully get to and through recovery.  Reach out to other communities around the US who have experienced similar disasters. Most are anxious to help and pay it forward.
  • Use your networks…such as the Chamber, Downtown Associations, League of Cities, and National Association of Counties to activate networks of support.
  • Take time along the way of recovery to rest…and to celebrate your successes and acknowledge your milestones. After two years, five years, seven years, you will be amazed at how far you have come.

For Property Owners:

  • Set up a website…specific to your property where tenants/businesses can get up-to-date information on what is going on with your location.  Include pictures, community websites, phone numbers, emails and other information that gives them sources to find additional assistance with whatever they are dealing with.  Update, no matter how little, the website daily. 
  • Develop an email distribution list…to the tenants/businesses/owners/lenders/contractors that tells them about the website.  People do appreciate the updates and any information you can report out on.  This communication method helps cut down on phone calls. 
  • Recovery cleaning contractors will be in force in your community.  While they are there to ‘muck’ the buildings, they also are there to make money.  Review carefully their contract and method of billing.  Require detailed documentation with their billings, including hourly wages, hours, personnel and activities being performed by day (or by hour). Insurance companies will want to challenge these billings. The City should require these contractors to register, but it may take weeks for the City to get that figured out due to sheer chaos is just getting processes going.  If your City/County government properties are impacted, expect it to be challenging to get them to respond. Owner of the property MUST sign the contracts for cleanup and restoration work due to the big dollars that will be spent in the recovery process.
  • Insurance companies will be sending in adjustors to inspect, document and advise.  Be prepared with daily logs of activities and pictures.  Include yourself in all conversation and directives.  It can take weeks to respond and approve restoration work.  Make sure your owner and tenants/businesses are aware of the progress, or lack thereof.
  • Assemble all your building records, leases, contracts, files, and blue prints.  You will need these to recreate the property.  If these were destroyed in the flood, you can contact the general contractor and architect for what they have on file. 

For Merchants/Business Owners:

In June of 2008, I was the proprietor of an upscale restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids Iowa.  We were (and are) located in a building built in 1881 and were (and are) leaders in the long effort to rehabilitate our city’s core. Open only seven months, sitting on one of the distant corners of the 500-year flood plain, we suffered 45” of water on the ground floor.  It took us a year to the minute of having been evacuated and few hundred thousand dollars to reopen.  Thinking about the devastation in Colorado, here are my thoughts:

  • Feel sorry for yourself.  Feel sorrier for those who lost their homes.  Then, get over it for yourself because you’ll have to make some rational decisions.
  • Accept the help that your family, friends, neighbors and strangers will offer.  Cleaning up was the nastiest job I’ve ever had, and it would not have happened without the many who helped.  Don’t be too proud.  The act of helping benefits the helpers, too.  Besides, it’s got to be done, and choices will be few.  Watch out for predatory companies who follow these disasters.
  • Go help others, as you can.
  • Early on, do your best to soberly assess your future.  Try not to let emotion rule your decision to carry on…or not.
  • If you decide to go forward, look everywhere you can for funding.  Leave no stone unturned.  Ask others for advice.  You can even ask us.  We understand, and we know the drill.

Finally, and very simply, keep the faith. It will all work out; it always does.

A special thank you to the following individuals who helped contributed to this story:

  • Sandi Fowler, Assistant City Manager, City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Linda Langston, County Supervisor, Linn County, Iowa & former Downtown District board member
  • Connie Chapman, Property Manager, Ryan Companies & Former Downtown District board member
  • Lee Belfield, Owner, Zins Restaurant & Former Downtown District board member


Vanessa Solesbee, M.A. is President of The Solesbee Group and an associate of Denver-based firm, Centro Inc. Vanessa specializes in helping communities develop, market, and implement downtown revitalization initiatives with a special focus on parking strategic plan implementation, community branding and stakeholder engagement.

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