Flooded with memories

2008 Iowa Floods
Water flows over the spillway at the Coralville Dam on June 14, 2008. –photo by park ranger Jeffrey Peck

Whether it’s floodwaters churning through sheetrock and siding, or tornadoes ripping up foundation by the roots, the devastation wrought by natural disaster hardly seems cause for celebration. Organizers for Living With Floods, an educational and artistic collaboration between Hancher and several other University and statewide organizations, couldn’t have foreseen the events currently unfolding, but as Iowa City braces for what could be the state’s third flood in five years, one must wonder if this is indeed the new normal, if living with floods is exactly what we are learning to do.

Charles Swanson, executive director of Hancher, has had a lot of time to think about living with floods. Since Hancher Auditorium was destroyed by the flood of 2008, staff have been relocated to the University of Iowa’s Seashore Hall, and Hancher events have been performed throughout the city. For five years, Hancher has collaborated with local theatre companies and music venues to continue to offer the unique performances upon which they’ve built their reputation.

As a result of the flood, Swanson said, “We’ve learned to think more creatively. We’re thinking more about our partnerships, more about our collaborations.”

This collaborative spirit is manifested in Living with Floods, a series of events and educational outreach programs created through a partnership between Hancher, the University of Iowa Colleges of Engineering and Education, iExploreSTEM and other statewide organizations. The 2 ½ year series culminates this summer with outdoor concerts by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band in seven Iowa cities. The concerts will commemorate the five-year anniversary of the 2008 flood, as well as the two-year anniversary of the floods of 2011 in western Iowa.

Through the project, iExploreSTEM (a project of the State Hygienic Laboratory and the Health and Human Physiology Department at the UI) has conducted science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM) fairs to educate students on careers in these fields. The Iowa Flood Center has held forums on flood preparedness and response and the University of Iowa Colleges of Education and Engineering have invited teachers from participating communities to two-day training workshops designed to integrate flood-related learning into all aspects of classroom curriculum, from social studies to music.

Shannan Belden, ELP (talented and gifted) instructor at Stilwell Jr. High and Indian Hills Jr. High in West Des Moines, attended the UI training workshops and created coursework for her students based on what she learned there. Belden’s students researched the history of flooding in Iowa and gave presentations on their findings. They built terrariums, wrote “I Am From” poems based on a field trip to nearby Walnut Creek and interviewed residents, business owners and emergency-response workers who had been affected by flooding.

“Many of [my students] know what to do in the event of a tornado, but living in Iowa we get far more flooding than we do any other disaster and many people aren’t aware of what to do,” said Belden in an email. Students learned of the importance of tetanus shots and avoiding contact with flood waters. “In the end my students made connections on how knowing about the risk of flooding can help with purchasing a house and starting a business in the right or wrong area!”

Connected Poem

At Johnson County School of the Arts, instructors Melissa Summers and Barbara McCuskey focused on incorporating the Living with Floods training into their 4th grade classrooms. The students showed great interest in flood recovery after a trip to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, which was devastated by the ‘08 flood.

“It was very interesting that many of these 4th grade students actually couldn’t remember much about the flood of 2008—because they were so young at the time,” said Summers, “so they did research: used the internet, books, looked at photos, interviewed members of their families, teachers [and] community members about the CR flood experiences … to gain a deeper understanding.”

Students at Johnson also collaborated with JSA Resident Guest Artist Ben Schmidt to write and produce a play, Once Upon a Flood. The musical was set in the Czech Village and focused on helpfulness between neighbors during flooding there. Students also researched the connections between New Orleans and Cedar Rapids, and studied historical preservation and jazz music. Their Living with Floods curriculum culminated in a tour of the  National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa, which one student gleefully described as “better than Adventureland!”

Johnson students displayed their flood-related poems, art, music and research, and debuted Once Upon a Flood for students, families and community members on May 14.

As a victim of the Flood of ‘93, and a resident of Iowa City during the flooding of ‘08, I have experienced firsthand the feelings of powerlessness and loss of control that come with watching your home and the homes of loved ones overcome by water. Some things can be painful to remember: The singled-out feeling of displacement, the loneliness of watching others’ lives go on around you while yours has been so savagely undone. The money worries. The stench of stagnant water. The endless cleanup and rebuilding.

Yet there are positive impressions as well: The countless neighbors and friends lined along a levee or the banks of a seething river, lost in the choreography of sandbagging. Scoop, dump, fill, tie, pass, repeat. There is immeasurable value in the nods of neighborly recognition down a line of filthy sandbaggers, a feeling of connectedness that can scarcely be imitated by any organized, deliberate community-building event. It is a bond stamped in mud. Written in rain. Something worth commemorating.

“We want to acknowledge how far we have come since the flood, what we have learned,” says Swanson, “and take time to reflect on our memories of the disaster.”

This June, the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be touring a flood-affected city near you. They bring with them a 50-year history of the jazz tradition in New Orleans, and their stories of Katrina.

“They have their own flood experience, so when they found out about this project, they were intrigued by the whole concept of this living with floods,” Swanson explains.

In most cities, the outdoor concerts will be held near a river, and each community involved has experienced flooding on some level. The concerts create a space to reflect on what has been lost, learned and gained and to celebrate the resiliency of both people and place.

“It’s been very satisfying working together with all of these groups in the University and all of these community partners,” says Swanson. “Five years is a long time. And we’re not really celebrating, we’re just commemorating  It’s been a labor of love for all of us.”

Stephanie Catlett once took a boat to her front door.