Stories of resilience from the 2008 flood

Search and rescue teams patrol flooded streets in search of stranded citizens in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on June 12, 2008. — photo by Staff Sgt. Oscar Sanchez; public domain

Cedar Rapids and Iowa City residents recall the devastating flood of 2008, from the tragic loss of businesses, homes and workplaces to the silver lining of hope, new beginnings and community growth over 10 years of recovery.

Sue Millar

Owner, Millar Woodwind Repair

My business was in the Kouba building located on Third Street in [the New Bohemia district]. We all knew the water was coming, but had no idea of the possible magnitude of the event. Even my landlord told me I was working too hard as I piled things on tables three feet off the ground. There just wasn’t a strong sense of urgency as we prepared. Most people thought they’d just have to clean their floors and replace a rug or two.

But I started getting nervous the night before the water was supposed to start trickling into New Bo, so I packed my toddler in the car and went out at midnight to grab a few tools and clarinets in case I needed to work from home for a few days. Those few days turned into nine months.

After that, I moved into a teeny room in the Cherry Building. I didn’t need much space at the time, as I had lost every last scrap of my business to the flood.

Ten years later and now in one of the renovated spaces on the first floor, I still call the Cherry Building home. The 10-year lore of the community coming together to heal and rebuild is real. The energy of us all rebuilding together sustained us during the tough times. I simply could not have rebuilt my business without the unwavering support of my family, my friends, the “can do” spirit of the Chadima family (who helped many of us in New Bo get back on our feet) and my amazing customers, who so patiently and generously hung in there with me as my business recovered.

Workers add dirt to a levee on the riverfront near the Penford Products plant on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. — photo by Lauren Shotwell.

John Schwartzkopf


I responded to the threat like everyone else, stacking as much as possible on workbenches and tables, expecting a couple of feet of water in the shop at the most. When we left the shop we tiptoed through water on the ground. The area was blocked off after that. The storms that night north of Cedar Rapids caused the flood to crest about 8 feet higher than expected, so preparations were in vain. No one expected anything close to that.

Cleanup was a messy operation, sorting salvage items from much larger piles of debris. There was never a question about quitting. Like most of us in New Bo, I had no employees. I was my business. I was doing what I enjoyed. This was an opportunity to restart and rehab my business, replacing tools and improving my working space.

Months later I had relocated across the alley to the Cherry Building, where my woodworking shop is currently located. I have a better shop than before and am still busy. It wasn’t easy rebuilding even with grants, forgivable loans, SBA loans and an overused credit card, but I’m still here along with friends whose stories match my own. Those of us who were in the same building still feel like we have a bond that has resulted in long-term friendships. What was very real then seems more like a surreal dream now — one I don’t need to repeat.

Elizabeth Graf and Andrew Sherburne

Iowa City homeowners

Graf: At 1:30 a.m. the police knocked on our door to issue a mandatory evacuation for our neighborhood and told us we had 30 minutes to get out. We ran up the street to get our car, as we have been parking it up the hill at a friend’s house just in case the flood waters made the street impassable. We stayed for two hours loading our Toyota Camry and a friend’s truck and then getting appliances and furniture up on blocks.

The next morning we went back down to our neighborhood and again were told we had only 30 minutes to get our things and get out. We hid in our backyard and filled 25 sandbags. I said a prayer of hope for our house and we left it, still dry. In ’93 the river crested at 28.5 feet and was up to our sidewalk and the forecast called for a crest over 30 feet. Sadly, we only put everything up 8 inches and we didn’t sandbag our house — we used those sandbags to help with the levee in the hopes that it would hold back the flood waters. It’s times like these when you’re happy to have a roof over your head, your health and safety, friends who can help and a partner to lean on through the whole thing.

The following day we canoed down to our house, which was filled with two and a half feet of water. Despite raising up our furniture on cinder blocks, the water was up over them. Everything we left behind got wet.

In the water, we found a box of photographs that we had put high on a shelf hoping they would stay dry. We carried them out and up to our temporary residence. Amazingly, photographs will survive as long as they aren’t allowed to stick together. So we carefully rinsed them in clean water and laid them out to dry on the calm day, hundreds of photos in perfect lines across the driveway. These memories would survive, and now we had new ones. It was a victory over the flood.

Sherburne: Nothing can prepare you, precisely, for walking into your living room through nearly three feet of water. Anticipated but still shocking, devastating but fascinating. It was a moment we’ll never forget and hope to never experience again. The devastation of the flood was fast and furious. The rebuilding, on the other hand, was slow and laborious. In many ways those were the most trying months I’ve endured. But, perhaps surprisingly, I look back at the experience as one of the most important, and in some ways positive, of my life.

Through adversity I learned what I was capable of. Rebuilding the house in its entirety brought a new project every day. First it was demolition, ripping apart a damaged home until its bare bones were exposed. Those bones were still strong after all, and after being bleached and dried they were ready to hold a new home. I certainly felt that way too: life pared down to the essentials was an opportunity to rebuild. And we did, redesigning the house to better fit our needs, rewiring, hanging sheetrock, laying the floor, painting the walls, installing the cabinetry, new doors, new shower, new tiling. It was a crash course in home construction and the only way to rebuild on the $28,800 FEMA budget was to do it ourselves. We had to learn new skills. We had to play the role of carpenters and plumbers and electricians. And we had to go to work every day, and spend every evening laboring. All while we prepared to welcome a new baby into the finished home.

When we did come home from the hospital with our daughter, eight months after the flood, our house had been finished for months. It was ready for a new life. We proved that we could handle the worst and come out stronger.

Of course, we didn’t do it alone. We ate sandwiches from the Red Cross, we sprayed bleach provided by church groups, we ate jambalaya cooked by Katrina survivors. Good friends swung sledge hammers when we needed to tear down, and laid flooring to rebuild. Friends gave us an apartment to live in for three months. We shopped for groceries with food stamps and stocked our bathroom with essentials from the Crisis Center. We bought living room furniture with donations. Every step of the way, we relied on our best friends and complete strangers to help us through our most challenging moments.

What could have been the most devastating year of our lives proved to be the most life-affirming. We were lucky. But we also learned a lesson in humility: ask for help, someone will answer the call.

All of these lessons opened a new perspective for me. I wanted to give something back and I had seen proof that amazing things could be accomplished as a collective. As part of Iowa City’s rebuilding, an opportunity for a stronger downtown presented itself, and I shared in the idea to strengthen community through the arts. In co-founding FilmScene and setting out to create a community cinema, I firmly believed that this community would again help build something beautiful from the ground up.

Ten years after the flood, Iowa City feels more like home than ever. I feel like a part of it. It is a part of me. And together, all of us have built something better than before.

The Cedar Rapids Public Library (1985-2008) at 500 1st St. SE lost half its collection and closed permanently after the 2008 flood. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren

Kristine Olsen

Materials Librarian, Cedar Rapids Public Library

I remember what an uncommonly snowy winter we had that year bookended by an unusually wet fall and spring. It was little wonder that the area rivers rose as they did. Given the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s proximity to the river, at that point, it was only natural that we would be concerned by what we saw, although precedent would suggest that the river would not reach our doors. In the days leading up to the flood, prior to being told to leave the downtown area, we did ensure everything of value was off the floor, so power cords, computers and other floor-bound electronics were placed up on overturned garbage cans or on desks, if possible. All of the bottom book shelves were emptied and placed either on top of the shelving unit itself or we double shelved on one of the higher shelves. High value items, such as our Zerzanek Collection, went up to the second floor.

As a further precaution, we did sandbag our entrances as well. The information we had suggested that we would come back to wet carpet and nothing more; this, from our City leaders and estimates based on precedent. It was felt we were prepared. No one knew that the river’s gauge would break nor what we would see once it was restored. By the time that information was known, it was far too late to do much more than hope for the best for both the library and its community.

I remember being absolutely fixated on KCRG and its coverage on that dreadful day just looking for some shots of the library to see how it was faring. At some point I saw a boat go past and was horrified by what I saw. I know so many in the community were devastated by the loss of the library — I can guarantee that that devastation was so much more for those of us who had so lovingly tended to its collections, patrons and programs for so many years (almost six for me at the time). My library family had lost its home. I was, and remain, extremely thankful that I did not have to balance preparations for both work and home.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in library use since the flood. Our door counts, program attendance, circulation numbers (how many materials get checked out) and meeting room usage are through the roof (which happens to be a wonderful space in and of itself). We are in a different location — this was mandated by FEMA as a condition to receive money to rebuild. For me the silver lining that emerged from all of the muck is the outstanding facility we now have to serve our community’s needs for information, building community, transforming lives or to simply fill a desire to have fun. Our library family finally had a new place to be extremely proud to call home!

Fortunately we are at the very edge of the 2008 flood zone. The property that once stood here only had water in their basement. We do not have a basement and the decision was made to bring in fill to ensure our foundation is well out of any possible flood zone should, God forbid, 2008, or worse, ever happen again. Perhaps we’ll finally have better flood protections in place by that time. Echoes of 2008 happened in September of 2016 with yet another historic crest. This time the City was vastly better prepared and so were we. We lent hands to the other libraries in the area who had to pick up the slack since we were closed for a few days as a result of downtown being evacuated. We also found our way to various community organizations, like the Jane Boyd Community House, to provide some volunteer help and some activity kits to the users of those facilities. In essence, we went from rebuilding and recovery to [discovering] how we can help our community during times of distress (I would say the flood of 2016 certainly qualified for that).

Tim Flynn

Owner/operator, Timmy Flynn’s Red Pepper Deli and Grill (then called Hungry Hobo; name changed in 2011)

Our initial prep for the flood of ’08 was fairly minimal until we saw how miscalculated things were in Cedar Rapids. We then kicked it into high gear. The water never got more than 10 feet into the parking lot. As close as we are to the river, we are still outside the 100-year flood plain.

We never had to relocate, but were closed for a week. The City of Iowa City made everyone cut their power as a safety precaution, justifiably so.

When we were allowed to reopen we were quite busy, I think for a couple of reasons: One, curiosity. A lot of people wanted to see the impact on the affected area. Two, sense of community! The people of Iowa City were trying to help us rebound from the business interruption caused by the flood.

The one good thing that came into play because of the flood was the sense of community. The day we really needed to get hyper with sandbagging, folks came from everywhere with shovels over their shoulders, ready to help. It was pretty impressive!

We really didn’t change anything with the business because of the flood other than thoroughly review our business owners insurance policy (BOP).

Sections of this article were originally published in Little Village issue 244.

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